Howard Hong was reading about Henrik Ibsen when he learned that the Norwegian poet and playwright had been highly influenced by Søren Kierkegaard. That led the inquisitive Hong to pick up one of the few of Kierkegaard's books that had been written in English. With a desire to know more about the Danish philosopher and theologian, Hong went to Copenhagen, Denmark, in the late 1930s, learned Danish and translated Kierkegaard's "For Self Examination" into English.
Hong's lifelong work of translating Kierkegaard's books, papers, journals and manuscripts into English can be seen at the Howard V. and Edna H. Hong Kierkegaard Library on the campus of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., where the charismatic professor with a deep plummy voice taught philosophy for more than 30 years.
"He was a very colorful and dramatic professor," said friend and colleague Jack Schwandt. "He was a dedicated teacher and a dedicated scholar, gallant, funny and welcoming."
Hong died March 16 while in hospice care in Northfield, from the effects of a fall in October. He was 97.
He teamed with his late wife, Edna, to translate a multi-volume edition of Kierkegaard's journals and papers, and their work on the first volume won them a 1968 National Book Award.
The couple translated scores more of Kierkegaard's writings into English and in 1976 donated their extensive collection to St. Olaf and founded the namesake library. Today it has more than 11,000 volumes, 3,500 periodical articles, a partial replication of Kierkegaard's personal library and works he might have had access to.
It is recognized as one of two major research facilities in the world devoted to the study of Kierkegaard. A book chronicling the library's history is set to be published in June.
"Dr. Hong was a monumental, larger-than-life figure who through his teaching, translations and kindness was able to uplift so many people," said Gordon Marino, director of the Kierkegaard Library. "Since Hong's death, the library has received countless letters of condolences and expressions of appreciation from every corner of the earth."
Hong's crowning jewel might be the 26 volumes of Kierkegaard's writings that he and his wife translated into English. It was a decade-long project they completed in 2000 and often at odd hours of the day. "He got out of bed and got dressed at 3 a.m. and walked 1 mile to school" to do some of the work, Schwandt said.
Hong graduated from Willmar (Minn.) High School at age 16 and graduated from St. Olaf in 1934. He earned a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota in 1938.
He taught at St. Olaf from 1939 to 1941 but left the college during World War II and went to Europe to work with prisoners of war and settle German refugees. He also worked as director of the Lutheran World Federation Service to Refugees.
After the war, Hong returned to St. Olaf, where he was a popular instructor visited frequently by former students. He retired in 1978.
He is survived by sons Theodore and Erik, both of Northfield, Peder, of Lady Lake, Fla., Rolf, of Rockport, Texas, and Nathaniel, of Bainbridge Island, Wash.; daughters Irena Elveton, of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., Mary Lee, of Oswego, N.Y., and Judith Hong, of Red Wing; 20 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Boe Memorial Chapel on the St. Olaf College campus in Northfield. It will be streamed live at www.stolaf.edu/multimedia.
A funeral service will be held at 2 p.m. Monday at Trinity Lutheran Church in Hovland, Minn., the Lake Superior town where he spent summers and invested in the community, those who knew him said.