Norma Gooden Ostby (1898-1990)

Norma Gooden OstbyNorma Gooden Ostby took charge of Concordia’s dramatic program in 1932.  Initially the theatre was unsupported by a formal budget or theater season; Ostby described the early productions as a “desperate financial enterprise.” In 1938, Ostby revitalized the artistic community of Concordia College by forming the Concordia Theatre, which provided the school with the organization and budget necessary to hold an annual theater season.

Norma Arlene Gooden was born  December 15, 1898 in Dallas County, Iowa to John C. and Psyche (Sutherland) Gooden.  She remained in her home state to attend the College of Liberal Arts at Drake University in Des Moines and graduated with honors in 1921.  She obtained a second bachelor’s degree at the Emerson College of Oratory in Boston, Massachusetts in 1927. Her career as a dramatics instructor began when she directed the senior high play in Norwalk, Iowa in May, 1922. [1]

Gooden married Aslak John Ostby in 1931. That same year she was hired as the head of speech and dramatics at Concordia College.  In addition to teaching and directing, Gooden also used her creativity to write plays.  One of her plays, Kin Folks, was performed by members of Alpha Psi Omega, Concordia’s theatre honor society, at the Northwest National Dramatic tournament in 1936, where it took third place in the amateur division. [2]

Despite her success as the director of theatre at Concordia, Ostby was unhappy with the department’s lack of funds and organization. The plays were produced sporadically, with the task of making up deficits left to either the director or members of Alpha Psi Omega. Such a system allowed for no budget, which meant that all equipment and costumes had to be gathered or created by the director herself.  Finally, in 1938, Ostby had had enough of this system and the lack of opportunities it provided for Cobbers interested in theatrics.  With authorization from the college administration, she formed the Concordia Theatre that year. Ostby’s establishment of the Concordia Theatre came close behind comparable programs at other Minnesota schools; Hamline University’s theatre program officially began in 1930, when Miss Anne Simley acquired a $150 budget and a small stage in the school’s Science Hall. The University Theatre at the University of Minnesota was established one year later. [3]

In this new organization, the faculty, students, and local community could purchase season tickets for just one dollar. With the revenue from the memberships the department was able to create its first independent budget. The membership allowed ticket holders to view three plays every year, and the funds gave students interested in theatre opportunities to audition for acting roles and to volunteer for backstage work. Ostby’s initiative was successful; for example, in 1943, the theatre’s sixth season, 390 members out of a student body of 442 purchased season tickets. Funds went toward making lighting and sound equipment, scenery, furniture, and a play library permanent fixtures in the department. [4]

Unfortunately in 1938 Ostby’s husband, Aslak, passed away at the age of 47.  Despite her loss, Ostby continued to grow as a director and educator in the years following. In 1940, William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew became the 100th production of her career and the nineteenth play that she directed at Concordia.  Shortly after a successful run of this production, Ostby took a year’s leave of absence to further her education. She obtained a master’s degree from the University of Iowa and resumed her position at Concordia in 1941.  She continued to serve as a professor and director and married Delmer L. Gilbert on June 5, 1944 in Fargo.  She retired in 1948. [5]

Norma Gooden Ostby Gilbert passed away on February 14, 1990, but her impact on Concordia College lives on.  Almost seven decades after its establishment, the Concordia College Theatre stages four plays a year, including one mainstage musical, and auditions continue to be open to all students. This coincides with one of Ostby’s most passionate and persistent stances: that theatre be an educational, rather than an exclusive, activity. [6]

Authors: Katie Beedy & Layne Cole

[1] Psyche Sutherland, 1900 census, Spring Valley, Dallas County, Iowa, roll 427, page 5A, ED 0014, (June 22, 2016); Drake University General Catalogue 1920-21 (Des Moines: Drake University Press, 1920), 181,184; Concordia College, Cobber 1932 (Moorhead, MN: Students of Concordia College), Concordia College Archives, 36.; Emerson College, Emersonian, (Boston: Emerson College of Oratory, 1927), 25; “Taming of the Shrew’ is Ostby’s 100th Dramatic Production,” Concordian, Apr. 25, 1940, 1.
[2] “Ostby, Gilbert Engagement Told,” Concordian, May 20, 1944, 2; “’Kin Folks Wins Third in Contest,” Concordian,  Apr. 17, 1936, 1.
[3] “The Concordia Theatre in Wartime,” Dec. 1943. Theater, Topical Files Collection, Concordia College Archives; “Theatre & Dance,” Hamline University, accessed Apr. 20, 2016.; “Department of Theatre Arts & Dance: History,” University of Minnesota, accessed Apr. 20, 2016,
[4] “The Concordia Theatre in Wartime,” Dec. 1934.
[5] “Aslak John Ostby,”, accessed Jun. 21, 2016; “’Taming of the Shrew’ is Ostby’s 100th Dramatic Production,” Concordian;  “Ostby, Gilbert Engagement Told,” May 20, 1944, Ostby, Norma Gooden, Biography Files Collection, Concordia College Archives; State Historical Society of North Dakota, “Archives - Marriage Index ‘E-I’,”, accessed Jun. 21, 2016; “Ostby, Norma Gooden,” Faculty and Staff Card Index, Concordia College Archives; “Gilbert, Norma Gooden,” Faculty and Staff Card Index, Concordia College Archives. 
[6] Norma Gilbert, Texas Death Index, 1903-2000, Norma Gilbert, Nueces County, Texas, 1990, accessed Jun. 21, 2016; “Concordia Theatre’s ‘Real Purpose Lies in Education,’” Oct. 30, 1941, Ostby, Norma Gooden, Biography Files Collection, Concordia College Archives.