Obituary: Harriet Wrolstad blazed trail in airline industry

  • Article by: ROSE FRENCH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 18, 2012 - 11:13 PM

Harriet Wrolstad

Harriet Wrolstad started out working as a ticket agent for Northwest Airlines in the 1940s and rose through the ranks in that male-dominated field to become a reservations manager.

She traveled the world overseeing field offices for Northwest -- one of the few women to hold such a high-profile position at the time -- and is considered a commercial aviation pioneer for her nearly 40 years of work with the airline.

"She said she always wanted to travel around the world, and I think she ended up doing it more than once," said Kathleen Sanderson Olson, of Eden Prairie, a close friend of Wrolstad's.

"She was so interesting... a trailblazer. The woman had a zest for life."

Wrolstad, of Richfield, died from heart failure on March 18. She was 93.

Born Dec. 3, 1918, in Granite Falls, Minn., Wrolstad was the only daughter of the Rev. Jorgen Oliver and Emma Everson Wrolstad. She graduated from Granite Falls High School in 1936 and from Augustana College, in Sioux Falls, S.D., in 1940.

Wrolstad taught high school English for several years in Minnesota, Iowa and South Dakota before joining Northwest in 1944.

"I just think it was an opportunity," Olson said. "Back then, you [women] were either a teacher or a nurse. And all of a sudden there's this opportunity to be in a bigger city. Airplanes were just kind of really coming into commercial travel. She got into it when it was a novelty."

Wrolstad joined the airline as a "passenger service agent" before being promoted to "reservations field supervisor," a position she held nearly 25 years. The job entailed an array of responsibilities, including flying around the world to manage Northwest offices and operations.

Wrolstad opened the airline's Tokyo reservations center in 1960-61, and became the first woman to earn the company's salesperson of the year award. As part of her job, she made some 33 trips to the Far East.

"In many foreign countries, she used to say they didn't know what to do with her," Olson said. "Sometimes she'd be the manager over an all-male office. Once I think she was in Pakistan and the women were in one room and she was in the other ... She was sitting with the men for a while but then they said, 'Would you like to sit with the women?' So then she went and sat with the women. Things like that. It was very different."

By the time Wrolstad retired in 1983, she had traveled to dozens of countries and to every continent, except Antarctica, Olson said.

Even after she retired, Wrolstad stayed active in aviation. She taught part time at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, lecturing on airline reservations.

An avid traveler until the end of her life, Wrolstad went on a Baltic cruise with a friend at the age of 92, Olson said.

"She was a very strong-willed Norwegian. She was a self-directed, very ethical person," Olson said. "She really loved to travel."

Wrolstad is preceded in death by her parents and her brother, Dr. Merald Wrolstad. Memorial services were held on April 14 at Woodlake Lutheran Church in Richfield.

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