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Continued: Velkommen! King Harald and Queen Sonja

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Last update: October 9, 2011 - 11:31 AM

Abby Kocher and Drew Dittmann are feeling both nervous and giddy, just like many of their fellow 868,000 Minnesotans with Norwegian roots. Even though it's early in the semester, the first-year students at St. Olaf College are cramming because Norway's king and queen are scheduled to stop by their Intro to Norwegian class during an eight-day visit to Minnesota.

"We are all cracking down and working our hardest to not embarrass ourselves in front of the king and queen," said Dittman, 17, of Stillwater.

They'll have just 14 hours of instruction under their bunads when King Harald and Queen Sonja visit Northfield Friday -- the midpoint of their goodwill trip that starts Tuesday and includes stops in the Twin Cities, Duluth, Rochester and Iowa.

"We'll only be able to learn so much by then, and I'd really like to be able to pronounce everything completely right," said Kocher, 18, of Fergus Falls. "But I'm afraid I'm going to do something completely offensive by accident."

From the crews reupholstering the furniture in Duluth's Norway Hall to the staffers arranging the seating chart for the 1,050 dinner guests at the Minneapolis Hilton, a year of logistical planning has prepared the state for their majesties' first visit in 16 years.

"Excitement doesn't even begin to describe it," said Kristbjorn Eide, president of Duluth's Sons of Norway chapter. "This is a historic event and it's stimulated so much energy from the whole Norwegian community up here."

Eide has ordered 300 Norwegian flags and secured an accordion player to greet the royal couple, who will fly with National Guard brass to Duluth Oct. 17 to rededicate Enger Tower in a 500-acre hilltop park that a Norwegian immigrant donated to the city decades ago. King Harald's late father, Olav, dedicated the stone tower in 1939 when he was crown prince.

Typically, about 30 of the 230 lodge members show up for Sons of Norway meetings in Duluth. More than 60 attended the last get-together as efforts to spruce up the 109-year-old Norway Hall downtown have intensified in anticipation of the royal visit. More than $10,000 has been raised to install new carpeting, refinish the floors, paint the walls and recover the furniture.

"My grandmother used to bring me down to Norway Hall when I was 8 to play," said accordionist Gerald Thilmany, 69, a retired teacher who will play three tunes, including Norway's national anthem, "Ja, vi elsker," for the royal arrival. "I was overwhelmed at first, but I'm excited by how this has really drawn me back to a special time in my life."

Nearly one in five

While the flood of Norwegian immigration to the region peaked more than a century ago, nearly one in five Minnesotans still identify themselves as Norwegian. According to 2009 U.S. Census Bureau figures, 868,361 Minnesotans -- or 16.5 percent of state residents -- claim Norwegian ancestry. That ranks second, behind only Germans.

And that's the most Norwegians in any state, according to Honorary Consul General Gary Gandrud, who is quick to acknowledge that North Dakota boasts the highest percentage of Norwegians.

"I've never known of a group of people more proud of its history and heritage than Norwegians," said Larry Hauge, 89, a retired mortician, banker and longtime leader of various Norwegian organizations. His father, professional wrestler Ole Hauge, emigrated from Norway in 1917.

When Hauge meets the king and queen next Sunday at a reception at the governor's residence, it will mark his second generation of royal Norwegian schmoozing. Harald's father, King Olav, visited Hauge's Edina home for Thanksgiving in 1987.

"He was really easy to be with," Hauge said, "a real down-to-earth fellow."

'An honor, to say the least'

Norwegian pride can be found just about everywhere in Minnesota. A big red and blue Norwegian flag flutters on the porch of Hilary Crook's house in the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood of St. Paul.

"My great-grandparents came from Norway and, even though we haven't lived there for generations, we're very patriotic and the whole Norwegian community is buzzing about this visit," said Crook, 31, who teaches Norwegian at the local vortex for all things Norway, Mindekirkin Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church in Minneapolis.

In Eagan, retired shop teacher Dick Enstad, 68, has become an accomplished Norwegian woodcarving folk artist. He's made 11 trips to Norway's Lesjaskog valley, where third cousins have become close friends.

When Norwegian artists come to Iowa's Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, they stop first in Eagan.

"We've become a halfway house for Norwegian folk artists," said Enstad, whose living room wall is stenciled with the words: Hils dagen med sjelen au livsgleden (Greet the day with a soul filled with gladness.)

Mary Johnson of Edina has worn her Norwegian pride on her "Oslo" license plate since 1975 and has photos of King Harald and Queen Sonja in the apartment she shares with her husband of 59 years, Jim Johnson. The couple, now both in their 80s, ran the Scandia import shop in downtown Minneapolis and then the Mall of America from 1965 to 2000.

Born Mary Kristiansen in Oslo, she's among the rare Norwegians with three generations of royal memories.

"The king's grandmother, Maud, died in 1938 when I was 7, and we lined the streets to see her casket come by in the procession," she said.

In 1948, Jim was in the Merchant Marines when his ship sailed into Oslo and he met Mary at a private party. They married four years later and made 37 trip back to Norway to buy sweaters and carvings to sell in their shops over the years. The Johnsons even planted a 7-foot wooden Viking statue of Erik the Red in their front yard, which became a landmark off Gleason Road in Edina for years.

As Jim rose to president of the Norwegian-American Chamber of Commerce, they both received numerous royal medals from King Olav. That, in turn, led to a private audience with King Harald in his Oslo palace in 1996.

"It was absolutely exciting and an honor, to say the least," said Mary, who maintains her singsong Norwegian accent.

Jim says King Olav was a "likable, fine man and a little more relaxed than Harald, who's a little more reserved."

During their palace visit 15 years ago, Jim made a comment about the compliments he receives about his still-thick head of hair. The bald King Harald, in a rare flash of humor, retorted: "I wish I had some."

During the upcoming visit, Mary says rules restrict formal conversations with their majesties during receptions.

"But I always find a way to slip in some Norwegian," she said. "It gives you such satisfaction to receive them."

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

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