Driftless Stories -

Joy Tlou: Finding Joy in Decorah

By Christy Ebert Vrtis | Winter 2022-23 Inspire(d)

In 1966, the Tlou family immigrated to Decorah, Iowa, in pursuit of an education at Luther College. What they found was a neighborhood that became a family.

The Tlou family: Litha, Josiah, Lee, Hla, Leeto and Joy Tlou
Litha and Josiah Tlou, with their children Lee, Hla, Leeto, and Joy. / Photo courtesy Hla Tlou

Mouth-watering food. Stunning nature photography. Beautifully crafted pottery. Music that made other people happy. Passionate dedication to students as a college administrator. Joy Tlou’s many talents drew people to him throughout his life. And his magnetic personality kept them close – even when separated by thousands of miles and many years – and even after his unexpected death in June 2021. 

Bound by their love for Joy, his sister, Hla, and childhood friends from Decorah – Steve Berg, Pete Ylvisaker, Amelia Kurth, and college roommate Stephen Streufert– worked to create the Joy Tlou Memorial Award criteria at Luther College. Additionally, Hla established a rental home for international students and their families on Leif Erikson Drive in Decorah to honor Joy and parents Litha and Josiah. This neighborhood, right in Luther’s backyard, was the place where home took on deeper meaning.

1966. The Sound of Music was popular in theaters. $.25 cent hamburgers for a family with three kids was hard to come by for many. The war in Vietnam was escalating. Protestors marched to Selma and, shortly thereafter, the Voting Rights Act was passed. 

Joy Tlou's parents: Litha and Josiah Tlou about 60 years ago.
Litha and Josiah Tlou “about 60ish years ago,” Hla says / Photo courtesy Hla Tlou

Josiah Tlou, a principal and teacher in Rhodesia, Africa (now Zimbabwe), immigrated with his wife Lithia, daughters Lee and Hla, and son Joy to Decorah, Iowa where son Leeto was born. The family was supported by a sponsorship from the Lutheran World Federation in Geneva and fueled by the dream of a United States education at Luther College.

When word got out that a family of color – one of the first-ever – was moving to town, Lutheran Pastor David Berg and other community members formed a sort of task force to welcome them, and see how to help make their family feel comfortable in Decorah.

An effort to remove lawn jockeys – painful reminders of slavery – that were found in some yards across the town was a good example of “know better, do better” for the community. Circumventing discriminating landlords by finding the Tlou family a safe place to call home in the basement of Luther College Professor Clair Kloster and wife Hedvik – was next on the list. And as soon as the Tlou family settled in, the neighborhood embraced them.

“The family moved onto Leif Erikson Drive – Joy, and Hla, and Lee and their parents – and they just fit in,” recalls Pete Ylvisaker, former Decorah resident and then-Tlou-neighbor. “It was this strange little melting pot of a neighborhood where, you know, we are all kids about the same age. Nobody cared where we were coming from, or our ethnicity, or any of that. It was just more kids to play with on summer nights and winter days sledding down the Sunnyside Hill.”

Sunnyside Hill is a popular sledding and playing destination for Leif Erickson neighborhood kids, including Joy Tlou
Luther College’s Sunnyside Hill has been a popular spot for sledding and playing for Leif Erickson neighborhood kids for decades. / Photo by Navia Erbst 

The kids played together in the streets, running through neighbors’ yards and playing games like “Starlight/Moonlight,” and “Kick the Can” – which was changed to “Kick the Ball” when a neighbor complained about the can noise. 

Joy Tlou as a baby
“Joy had just learned to walk in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe),” Hla Tlou says. /Photo courtesy Hlya Thou

Hla says it went further than playtime as well. The neighborhood kids and their parents helped teach the Tlou children English and the nuances of American culture. She remembers learning social rules and customs, like how to give a firm handshake and look people in the eye when communicating with them. 

The kids – and parents – formed fast friendships and, over the next few years, evolved into a self-proclaimed extended family that has remained connected for nearly 60 years. 

“When the Klosters took us in, it felt like the entire community opened up to us,” Hla Tlou remembers. “Not everyone is fortunate to experience that. We were fortunate. As internationals, as immigrants, especially from the perspective of a parent who was trying to find a place for his family to live, who was trying to keep his family together because that was very important to our family and to our culture.” 

Lee, Hla, Leto and Joy Tlou as children
In the back, Lee & Hla; front, Joy & Leeto. 
/ Photo courtesy Hla Tlou

A few years later, their family moved to Illinois so Josiah could pursue a master’s degree in history at Illinois State University. They returned to Decorah in 1969, when Josiah became a faculty member in the Education Department at Luther. He helped to establish what was then known as the Black Studies Department. 

They returned to Illinois three years later, where Josiah earned his Doctorate of Education degree. Finally, they settled at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, aka Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Virginia, where Dr. Tlou worked as a professor in the College of Education for more than 30 years and is currently Professor Emeritus. 

However, in the hearts of Hla and her brother Joy, Decorah remained “home.” 

1982. E.T. is an immediate hit in theaters. 700,000 people gathered in New York City to protest nuclear weapons. “Physical” by Olivia Newton-John is number one on the Billboard Charts.

The pull “home” was especially strong for Joy, who returned to Decorah in the fall of 1982 to attend Luther College. 

Pete Ylvisaker, who had just transferred to Luther for his sophomore year, recalls sitting in his communication studies course on the first day of classes.

Lee, Josiah, Hla and Joy Tlou
Lee, Josiah, Joy, & Hla pose for a photo on Riverview Drive. /Photo courtesy Hla Thou

“We all had to go around the room and introduce ourselves, and I did my schtick, and there was this kid the next aisle over […] who said ‘you know, I’m from Rhodesia originally,’ and something clicked in my head,” Pete remembers, laughing. “And then he looked at me and said ‘You know, none of you know me except this kid next to me. Hey, Pete? I’m Joy.’”

Joy and Pete picked up right where they’d left off, hanging out, playing hacky sack in front of the student union, and generally having fun. Friendships were rekindled with Leif Erickson neighborhood friends Amelia Kurth and Steve Berg, now students at Luther, as well.

“Suddenly the gang was back together,” Pete reflects. “Sometimes you don’t see someone for awhile, and things have changed, and there’s awkwardness, and it sort of flames out. That was not the way, you know? The flame was burning hotter than ever.” 

But Joy, always a likable kid, had blossomed into something much bigger than anyone had really remembered from their youth. 

“Joy wasn’t just the life of the party – he was the party,” Pete remarks, smiling and shaking his head. “And the smile and laugh, Man Alive!” 

Joy became close friends with fellow student and roommate Stephen Streufert, now Chief Development Officer at Northwest Mariner Center in Washington State, and the two became known on campus for their famous fish fry dinners in Peace Dining Room. 

The invitations would often capture Joy’s humor, playful spirit, and desire to bring people together. An excerpt from the third – and final – Fish Fry Dinner invite reads as such:

“You are cordially requested to share an evening of good friends and good food, together in the most sacred of all eating places, (no, not Morris Eatery), but in Luther College’s own Bits and Peaces Dining Room, on the day that Caesar was slain (a shame huh). […] You and your table mates will be whisked via taste buds and transcendental meditation to the scenic shores of Cook Inlet and Chub Key, not to be confused with Key Largo, African Queen, Casablanca, or any other Humphrey Bogart flick. Anyway, you will enjoy, we hope, gastronomical D-lights from around the world.”

Those delights literally came from around the world.

“Joy and Stephen had gone to work at a fishery up in Alaska, and they brought back all the salmon, like tons and tons of salmon, and they threw this huge, amazing party!” Steve Berg says. “Like, it blew me away. The generosity and just that they thought to do that. I felt so honored to even be invited.”

A recent photo of Joy Tlou, who passed away in 2021.
Joy Tlou in a recent photo. He passed away in 2021.

1994. The Lion King and Forrest Gump top the movie box office. “The Sign” by Ace of Base reigns over the Billboard. Friends debuts on TV. And Nelson Mandella is elected President of South Africa. 

Joy’s love for connecting people remained central to his life, even as he moved to Park City, Utah, where he worked as an administrator at Salt Lake City Community College (SLCC) for nearly 30 years. 

As the Director of Public Relations at SLCC, Joy was recognized for his deep commitment to the college and his dedication to the students and the college community. 

“Joy’s reach across the college was positive and profound,” says SLCC President Deneece Huftalin via email to the Salt Lake City Globe Newspaper. “He was constantly looking for ways to promote SLCC as a special place that could help anyone find success. Joy was gifted in ceramics and the culinary arts. He was also an extraordinary and successful musician and was renowned on the local, regional, and national music scenes.” 

Those music scenes are where many people first encountered the “soulful crooner” that was Joy Tlou. 

At the age of three, shortly after moving to Decorah, Joy was asked by the iconic music professor and conductor, Weston Noble, to sing a solo in Handel’s Messiah as part of the annual Christmas at Luther concert. Despite this early exposure to music performance – and in such a grand setting – Joy did not return to music until almost three decades later. 

Joy was the lead singer of the Salt Lake City-based band Soul Patrol. And then Joy got an idea. He approached the band’s guitar player, Eric Sopanen, and they formed The Joy & Eric acoustic duo.

Joy & Eric quickly became a mainstay in the local music scene, and played as the opening band for big name musicians like Natalie Cole, Al Green, Chicago, John Oats, and many others. 

And the Leif Erikson crew? They were still going strong. Although each of them scattered to different parts of the country, when they got together it was like a piece of home.

“I think of sitting in Joy’s kitchen in Park City, and it’s not a big, big kitchen, but it’s got the stove and he’s just surrounded by all of his cooking stuff,” says Amelia, now an Iowa-based animator for Sony Video Games. “And then there’s a big wooden bar with stools around it, and you sit there and he just cooks and talks to you the whole time. And he’s got great music playing in the background and you’re just surrounded by these wonderful smells and this wonderful conversation, and the music. It’s just, it’s such a hard thing to bottle.”

Joy’s gregarious personality meant that people knew – and remembered him – no matter where he went.

“It was astonishing,” Pete observes. “You know how many people knew Joy, and you hear these crazy stories about him, and you think there’s no way that Joni Mitchell wrote a song about Joy, that there is no way that that’s true. And then you find out that it’s absolutely true! Because that’s the effect he had on people.”

A recent photo of Josiah and Litha Tlou - Joy Tlou's parents
Josiah and Litha Tlou currently reside in Virginia, where Dr. Tlou is Professor Emeritus at Virginia Tech. / Photo courtesy the Tlous. 

2021. Joy’s death was a shock to everyone who knew him. He was 57.

“I got a phone call from Amelia,” Pete recalls. “And she said that Joy had died. And it was just a punch in the gut like nothing else.”

Once again the Leif Erikson crew – kids (now adults) and their parents – came together, this time to mourn the loss of their Joy.

“I’ve had other friends pass and there’s sadness,” Pete continues. “But it’s not sort of this community rallying around itself to be there for each other, and that’s the way Joy was, both in death and for sure in life.”

Out of Joy’s death grew the possibility of rebirth and a continuation of his legacy of care, support, and giving back. 

Amelia, Pete, and Hla met up at the Bluebird Cafe in Iowa City shortly after Joy’s memorial. And Hla had a plan. 

What if they created a memorial scholarship at Luther College? Would that help them grieve, while also providing support and opportunity to students, like Joy, who bring light to those around them? 

Hla fully endowed the award. Then the group, Amelia Kurth, Steve Berg, Pete Ylivisaker, Steve Streufert, and Hla, went to work crafting the selection criteria and getting the scholarship ready to award. The first official Joy Tlou Memorial Award was awarded in the spring of 2023.

Students – with or without demonstrated need for financial assistance – whose character, leadership, and participation in the campus community enhances the quality of campus life and encourages a ‘community of Joy’ can apply or be nominated for the award.

The hope is that students will be able to use some of the funds to create a project, similar, perhaps, to Joy’s Fish Fry Dinners, that is inclusive and brings the campus and/or local community together to create, share, and spread joy.

Tlou House sits in Joy Tlou's old neighborhood to provide a home to immigrant families coming to the area
The hope is that the Tlou House will help immigrant families feel at home in Decorah just as the Tlou family felt during their time in the community in the 60s and 70s. 
/ Photo by Navia Erbst

2022 “The group” didn’t stop with the memorial award. 

After Joy’s passing, and while the memorial award was in the beginning stages of creation, Hla decided she wanted to buy a house in Decorah. But not for herself. She wanted to buy a house with the intention of renting it to families “just like hers,” international students attending Luther College and their families. Like the Klosters had done for her family. 

And she knew where she wanted it to be: Leif Erikson Drive. 

She took to the internet to see what was on the market in July, 2021. And there it was. A  picturesque home on Leif Erikson Drive, directly across from the Sunnyside sledding hill. Joy had even “hunted” rabbits with Pete along the rock wall in the backyard of this house. 

Unfortunately, an offer had already been accepted. Deflated, Hla turned her energy to finalizing Joy’s memorial award. 

This statue of a mother elephant with her baby was donated by the previous homeowner. To Hla, this statue is yet another example that this house was meant to be hers: Tlou means elephant.
 / Photo by Navia Erbst 

A miraculous alignment of fate led Hla, almost a year later, to go online to check the Decorah housing market. And there it was. The same house she tried to buy in 2021. It had been on the market for 21 days with no offers.

She jumped. Her first offer was accepted. The day after, eight other offers came in. 

But now, the dream house in her “home” town was hers – for Joy. 

Hla immediately went to work. She called on the folks at Good Shepherd and the Decorah community and they showed up with furniture and lamps, bookshelves and rugs, dishware and bedding, and to help with maintenance and minor construction. 

By the time the house had its first “practice” renters – Steve Berg’s older brother and sister-in-law – it was fully furnished and “stocked” with everything an international family with children could need – including a crib, high chair, laptop and desktop computer, a security system, and all utilities and high-speed internet paid for. 

“If this house can help to even the playing field. If Joy’s scholarship – his memorial award – can help to even the playing field, even though that memorial award is open to everybody – because we, as a family, don’t discriminate” then she will feel like she has done Joy’s legacy justice. 

Tlou House welcomes families coming to the Deborah community
Welcome to the Tlou House.

The dedication for the house reads as follows:

The Tlou House was established July 28, 2022 in loving memory of my brother Joy and to honor our parents Litha and Josiah. You supported strangers who became friends, friends who became family, and if you saw a need for shelter your door was always open. These doors will always be open. In dedication, let this be a house where a family can live together while pursuing their life’s dreams. Let this be a house where neighbors become friends. Let this be a house where your spirit and love of community lives forever.

Let this be a home and not just a house.

Joy, Litha, and Josiah… This house was founded in your name for your unwavering generosity to humanity.

With love, from your sister and daughter – Hla

Christy Ebert Vrtis

Christy Ebert Vrtis is a teacher, writer, mom, and crime drama enthusiast who loves to curate book lists for family and friends, run (slowly) on the Trout Run Trail, and adventure around the world and throughout the Driftless with her husband and kids.

Navia Erbst

Navia Erbst interned with Inspire(d) in the Fall of 2022. She is currently a senior at Luther College majoring in Visual Communication. She has been working as a Graphic Designer and Photographer for college and personal projects and can often be found designing for the Luther Ballroom and Swing Team.

Note: A previous version of this article said Hla and “The Group” were raising funds for the Memorial Award. That is incorrect. To contribute to the Joy Tlou Memorial Award, contact the Luther College Development Office. Please note that The Tlou House Donation process is only in the planning stages.