Betty White passed away yesterday. Well-wishers flooded twitter with messages mourning her passing and celebrating her life. One tweet from @jxeker shared a clip from The Golden Girls where Rose Nyland (Betty White’s character) is telling a story from her past to help her friends resolve a problem. The clip shows her actor colleagues breaking character under the pressure of Ms. White’s comic chops.

After enjoying the clip, I saw the above reply from @lenajessica. I had to reply (excuse the typo):

Because my reply has gotten a few likes (I don’t know why), I thought I’d share the unsubstantiated story to which it alludes.

Two Colleges

By way of background, The Golden Girls was in production from 1985 until 1992.1 I’m an alum (‘93) of Saint Olaf College in Northfield, MN. I knew of The Golden Girls program, and I could recognize the four lead actors, but I didn’t know much about universe of The Golden Girls. Specifically, I did not know about the silly way our college was written into the show2 until Betty White visited Northfield in 1992.

Northfield spans the Canon River, with St. Olaf College on a hill to the West and Carleton College, another private liberal arts college, adjacent to downtown to the East. St. Olaf College is a college of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and it takes its Lutheran and Norweigian seriously. Carleton College also takes itself seriously, and it might have a space it calls a chapel, but that and some religion courses are the closest it gets to organized spirituality. These differences plus two third-rate athletics programs feather the bed for a friendly cross-town rivalry that goes back generations.

The Legend

Legend has it that, in the beginning, a Carleton graduate was a writer for The Golden Girls. The rest of the legend almost writes itself, no? This writer paints a picture of a rural Minnesota town called Saint Olaf. The town is home to people who, like Rose, are naive but well meaning. More often than not, that naivete tends towards idiocy. In this way a Carleton graduate was able to paint St. Olaf College as a bunch of Scandanavian dummies. And that is prank is in syndication for everyone to enjoy!

If there are annals of great acts in college rivalries, this one has to be the epitome. Prove me wrong.

The History

There is no historical evidence that this legend is more than a funny story made up by a Carl3 during Arbstock. I’ve found a couple internet references to the story (1,2), but there are no first-person accounts from anyone in The Golden Girls’s writers good that can verify it’s more than an amusing yarn.

The IMDB entry for The Golden Girls program lists the writers on the show from the start (i.e., 1985) as Susan Harris (Cornell), Winifred Harvey (NI), Barry Fanaro (Mercer College), Mort Nathan (University of Illinois), Terry Grossman (NI), and Kathy Speer (NI). I’ve added each writer’s alma mater parenthetically. The “NI” means my Googling yeilded no information about where that person went to college. At the date of this writing, there’s no clear connection between writers and Carleton.

If you can help find and primary sources (e.g., document, people) or connect me with someone who I can interview to substantiate this legendary origin story, my Twitter DMs are open.

EDIT: Another person who is mentioned as a writer on The Golden Girls, and someone who may have started as an intern on the show, is Christopher Lloyd. He’s a Yale graduate.

EDIT: (16 January 2022) In “Back in 1992, Betty White visited Minnesota’s real St. Olaf” that appeared January 15th in the Start Tribune, Curt Brown writes

White’s bond with St. Olaf started in the mid-1980s, when a Hollywood producer called Dan Jorgensen out of the blue at his office at the college, where he worked in public relations.

The TV guy wanted to give the college a heads up: They were going to feature White as a character from made-up St. Olaf, Minn. Jorgensen checked with the college president, who agreed it couldn’t hurt.

While it probably wasn’t the producer’s idea to give Rose the Olaf backstory, there may be a producer out there who can verify that this tale of a college rival is true.

  1. IMDB entry for the Golden Girls 

  2. Check out the Twitter account @StOlafStories which posts clips from the show that feature stories about people from Saint Olaf, MN. 

  3. Students of St. Olaf College refer to themselves as Oles. Students of Carleton refer to themselves as Carls.