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“Academic cock of the walk” who oversaw freshers’ footwear
1758 Bild 1%3b Ernberg karikerad av Jensen Carl%c3%a9n 1918
IMAGE: Otto Ernberg’s profile captured by Lund’s best caricaturist of the time, Carl Henrik Jensen-Carlén. Image source: Ett halvt hundra universitetsgubbar (Lund 1918)

Few things can seem more deserted than a university during the summer break. Lecture halls and laboratories stand empty, the departmental cafés and libraries are closed, and the otherwise hotly contested study places are available in droves – on condition that you manage to enter the usually locked faculty buildings.

However, you should never be too sure that all university premises are abandoned during the summer. This is what the cleaner in the main University building at the time, Mrs. Pettersson, found out on a warm July day in the early 1900s. As she was about to step into the offices of the University administration to clean, she came across a completely naked fellow sitting in one of the rooms, patting his belly. Mrs Pettersson certainly recognised the man in question (from his face, one hopes);
she nevertheless turned on her heels and ran home to her husband, who happened to be the building’s caretaker with a service apartment on site, and explained to him that “things had now got completely out of hand”. Mr Pettersson “seized his large bunch of keys and hurried to face the showdown”; when he cautiously opened the door a crack, he too found the still entirely naked man sitting there.
“Has Pettsson never seen a fellow naked before?” wondered the undressed.
“Why, yes, by all means, but never here!” answered the caretaker truthfully.

The naked man in question was none other than the Pettersson couple’s manager, the then academic secretary Otto Ernberg, and the reason for his nudist presence in the middle of the holidays was that he was captured by the ideas of the time concerning the health benefits of “sunbathing”. He had apparently found that his own office – with large south-facing windows – was a suitable place in which to practise this health-promoting hobby.

1x1 1759 Bild 2%3b Karnevalskommitt%c3%a9n 1872
Decades in the service of student life

IMAGE: Photo collage of the members of the 1872 carnival committee. Ernberg is to the far left in the second row from the top. Image source: Academic Society Archive.

Johan Otto Ernberg was born in Karlskrona on 4 April 1847, the son of a trader. Originally, he bore the surname Peterson; the more bourgeois-sounding Ernberg was adopted by him, his siblings and a number of cousins later on, after a common ancestor, Otto’s paternal grandmother Gustafva Ehrenberg, whose father in turn had taken the name from the Ernhyltan property in Ryssby parish in the county of Kronoberg. At that time, name changes of this sort often signalled some sort of social advancement and higher status, and one can observe that things went well for many of the “new” Ernbergs: Otto’s brother Axel became an engineer, company manager, Dutch consul and major municipal bigwig in Karlskrona, while a cousin, Jarl, became a government counsel, and another, Harald, a consultant physician at the Sachs paediatric hospital. A third cousin, Albert Ernberg, became a professor of law in Lund.

Otto was also destined to end up – and remain – in Lund. Having completed school in Karlskrona, he was enrolled at Lund University in 1864 at the age of 17 and joined Blekinge Nation. He appears to have studied at a rather leisurely pace: only after eight years did he complete the juris utriusque degree (the Latin term “utriusque” designates the degree as covering both Swedish and Roman law). One possible reason for the delay in Ernberg’s studies was that from 1870 he probably spent a great deal of time on his commitment as a member of the relatively new student fraternity CC, in which he rapidly earned the title of master of justice and, a few years later, grand master.

It is not impossible that the membership in CC contributed to a general opening of doors to a more active student life for Ernberg. In 1872, we find him in that year’s carnival committee, and a strikingly high proportion of the committee members – more than half of them – were also CC members at the time. Regardless, Ernberg would come to hold a number of important positions in the student world over the next few years – despite no longer formally being a student. The highest of these positions was his election in 1873 as head of Blekinge Nation. He would remain in that role for a whole decade, which sounds exceptional nowadays, but was not unusual at the time. At least within Blekinge Nation, Ernberg became the last long-term holder of a position in the old style; none of his immediate successors held the position for more than five years and, towards the end of the century, a formal term of office of two years was introduced. By then, Ernberg had long established himself in a less labour-intensive position within the Nation, namely as one of its honorary members. He had been appointed as such on the same day as he resigned as head, which one can interpret as a sign of his fellow Nation members’ satisfaction with his efforts.

However, Ernberg had an even longer-lasting commitment within the student world as an ombudsman (legal and financial representative) for the Academic Society (AF). He held this position all the way from 1875 until his death – a period of 45 years! Hopefully, this task was not too taxing either, although it required Ernberg to take action on at least one occasion. This was in May 1892, when yet another carnival was about to take place. The Academic Society was struck by the highly precarious circumstance of its restaurateur’s license having expired and, for some reason, not having been renewed by the authorities. The students’ own headquarters thus risked being completely dry during the carnival itself! At that point Ernberg stepped in, pointing at the popular student and carnival organiser Waldemar Bülow (later to become the legendary newspaper editor) with the words: “Bülow is the secretary of the social committee, so it his responsibility to take care of the alcohol; he will be our bartender”. Ernberg then quickly submitted a temporary application to the county council, which was approved; as a result Bülow personally attended the till from two o’clock in the afternoon to two o’clock in the morning, and “personally served every pint of punch” during the carnival day.
1760 Bild 3%3b Ur konsistorieprotokoll 1887 1x1
An excellent keeper of minutes

IMAGE: This page from the minor consistory’s minutes recorded in the spring semester of 1887 provides an excellent opportunity to compare Ernberg’s handwriting (below) to his predecessor Johan Kreüger’s more sprawling style. Both the last point in Kreüger’s minutes and the first in Ernberg’s deal with the change of academic secretary. Image source: Lund University Archive.

In his capacity as academic secretary, Ernberg was often the first University representative that a newly minted Lund student would encounter. Indeed, each such new student was to present himself to the secretary on arrival at the academy, in order to be entered into the register of enrolled students and to receive his student letter. After that, new students got to solemnly shake hands with the rector magnificus, who was waiting in the next room. Enoch Ingers, who enrolled in 1888, has written about one of the conditions for this rite of passage:

My second day in Lund was dedicated to enrolment procedures at the University, so that I could receive my student letter. At breakfast I had been advised that one should present oneself in a tailcoat, and someone informed me that the very particular academic secretary Ernberg had told a fresher, who had not adhered to this rule of decorum, to go home and change into an “appropriate outfit”, before he could be received by the rector magnificus.

When Ture Sjögren, the future founder of the Academic Society Archive, enrolled more than two decades later (1910) together with a few fellow students, they were met by a “gracefully stooped man, whose lively, curious eyes reviewed us literally from head to toe” – that was Ernberg. By that time, the tailcoat requirement had been dropped, but another item of the youths’ outfits was nevertheless subjected to the academic secretary’s particular scrutiny: “he paid great attention to his fellow human beings’ footwear – that was his little fixation”, writes Sjögren (besides his interest in footwear, Ernberg is said to have had another sartorial mania, namely “trying on student caps”!). However, Sjögren also remembered how Ernberg, after the newly enrolled students’ visit to the rector magnificus, invited him to stay behind and asked him a few questions about his father, with whom Ernberg had been at school. This personal interest in an individual young student chimes with what a third witness, Aron Westerlund (class of 1903), wrote later about his own enrolment. Certainly, he observes, Ernberg’s instructions “given in a rather terse and loud tone of voice” could initially seem somewhat unfriendly, but one soon realised that the man behind them was “a great friend to students”.
1x1 1761 Bild 4%3b Knutsgillets styrelse 1920 foto P Bagge (UB)
Local politician with no partisanship

IMAGE: The Knutsgillet society board and treasury in 1920. Ernberg is standing in the centre of the back row. The society’s elder Nils Flensburg, whose eulogy of Ernberg is quoted several times in the article, is sitting second from left in the front row. Image source: Lund University Library.

Now it was not only the students who were the object of Ernberg’s attention. He also dedicated a deep and extensive engagement to the city of Lund itself. For more than 30 years, he was a member of the city council, of which 13 years as its vice chair. In addition, he was the regular chair first of the city’s building council and later its treasury. Besides that, he was a member of Malmö county council for just over a decade. This was at a time when local politicians were still elected more on the basis of personal qualities than political or ideological merits, and Ernberg is said to have distinguished himself for his “total independence from any political partisanship”.

Even the world of local businesses and associations benefited from Ernberg’s characteristic commitment: he served as the executive director of two local railway companies (for the Lund-Kävlinge and Lund-Trelleborg railways) and, for almost a quarter of a century, he was the principal for the Savings Bank in Lund. For an equally long time, he was a member of the finance committee in the city’s ancient fraternal society, Knutsgillet, and he is said to have been a diligent supervisor of its assets, albeit without showing any personal tendency towards miserliness. If the need for support to the elderly that the society distributed ever happened to exceed its annual profits, Ernberg would choose to add money from his own pocket rather than overdraw the society’s coffers!
Sharp-tongued but fond of children
Ernberg was definitely a well-known figure in Lund at the time, sometimes described as something of an eccentric – a trait that the sunbathing incident mentioned above would seem to confirm. At the same time, many people testify that, in his official capacity, he was extremely conscientious, competent and dutiful. His friend Flensburg spoke of his “unusually sharp mind, the savoir faire that allowed him to discover the kernel in every issue on the table”. It seems that other Lund law alumni around the country occasionally turned to Ernberg when they were faced with challenges in their profession. One such person was an old fellow student of his who had become mayor (and thereby the highest judge) in a small town in which crime levels were usually low. Now, however, for the first time, the mayor had had to manage the arrest and detention of a presumed thief. Uncertain whether he had handled the case correctly, he sent a telegram to Ernberg in Lund: “Thief detained. What next?”. Ernberg must have suspected that not everything had been done by the book, responding with a quick return telegram “Release thief! Letter to follow.”

In popular or perhaps more in student folklore, Ernberg was known as “tuppen” (the cockerel) or even “the academic cock of the walk” reportedly for his snooty, somewhat beaky nose, as well as his “tripping” gait. Photographs of him also reveal that, as the years went by, he developed a rather pear-shaped figure, which most probably contributed to his similarity with a farmyard bird. However the nickname was not at all appreciated by its bearer, so it was probably best not to use it in his vicinity, as Ernberg was known for his “sharp tongue”. In some anecdotes, he appears at times to be almost brutally honest. For example, one of his colleagues in the University administration, “the hesitant little academic accountant Regnéll”, once wondered whether Ernberg wished to attend a Christmas party at his home. “No, I most certainly do not,” retorted the prospective guest with lightning speed, “do you think I want to sit for a whole evening and talk to your boring old sisters?”

Even the University’s official obituary after Ernberg’s death recognised that he had been “a man of distinct sympathies and antipathies” but that, at the same time, “under a perhaps somewhat rough exterior” he hid “a particularly strong sense of loyalty”. His commitment to the students has already been illustrated and, generally, it has also been said of the ageing bachelor Ernberg that “there was no greater friend to children and young people, and toddlers were drawn to him”. Despite his engagement with the younger generation, he did not forget the older. Nils Flensburg says of Ernberg in his old age that “memories of the past became his faithful guides on his assiduous wanderings within Lund’s city limits. On almost every street, one or another of the old-fashioned buildings that had been spared by modernisation evoked in him an experience shared with some friend from his youth, who had moved on to another location or to the grave”.

1x1 1762 Bild 5%3b Stillbild ur Lunda indianer 1920
Film debut as a pensioner

IMAGE: "The Historical Cultural Association" during its meeting in the carnival film The Lund Indians. Otto Ernberg is seated, wearing a light-coloured hat, just to the left of the meeting’s chair, Kulturen founder Georg Karlin, who is standing. Image source: screenshot from the DVD box “Karnevalsfilmen c:a hundra år” (2010).

In April 1914, Ernberg retired from his position as academic secretary after what was described, even in the Stockholm press, as “a long and particularly distinguished career as a civil servant” and “a significant and highly valued contribution to Lund University life”. He retained several of his voluntary and political engagements even after retirement, and did not hesitate to launch himself into completely new experiences either.

When the Lund students resumed their tradition of producing carnival films at the first carnival after World War I, in 1920, they decided to make fun of the fad of the time for ethnographic research expeditions. In the film, the “Historical Cultural Association in Lund” (read: the Cultural History Association, i.e. Kulturen) sends off an expedition to America to bring back so-called Indian artefacts (it eventually winds up with the expedition returning with a kidnapped chief’s daughter and the whole tribe close on their heels in a pursuit that ends on the long wooden jetty in Bjärred, but that is another story). The chair of the association was played by none other than the founder of its real counterpart, Georg Karlin, but the introductory meeting scenes required a few more prominent Lund personalities to act as board members. The 73-year-old Ernberg stepped up with great enthusiasm, thereby confirming the assessment of his “youthful spirit that persisted well into old age”. The film was shown not only at the carnival but also later at the Palladium cinema in Stockholm, “as a complementary programme for the American crime comedy The Love Burglar”. If he had wanted to, Ernberg could, at this point, have added “national film star” to his many previous titles!

Barely more than six months later, on 17 December 1920, he died of sudden cardiac paralysis. In the eulogy in Knutsgillet already quoted several times above, Nils Flensburg observed that the “only ambition” of the deceased had been “always to be allowed to stay in Lund, from which he would not be separated for any price in the world”. In that respect, Otto Ernberg will have died happy.

Fredrik Tersmeden
Lund University Archivist
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