Jorgen Viltoft, who as a teenager fought the Nazis with the Danish resistance and as an adult emigrated to America and became a successful businessman, died of cancer Feb. 10 at the home in Orono where he had lived since 1971. He was 88.
Viltoft was born in Copenhagen in 1925. His father was a hotel and restaurant manager, and by age 14, Jorgen was working with him as an apprentice cook, said his son, Steven, of Wayzata.
In April 1940, the Nazis invaded Denmark, and in 1942, his father died. His mother channeled her grief into work with the Danish resistance, smuggling spies and Jewish refugees in and out of Denmark, using the family’s country home near Copenhagen.
Jorgen, just 17, joined the Danish Royal Guard, wearing its signature bearskin at official ceremonies and secretly working with the Resistance and his mother. “Dad once told me that they had so many explosives stored in their country home that if someone had dropped a match, there would have been a huge crater,” Steven said.
Because the Germans used Copenhagen for R&R, British intelligence asked insurgents to find out what units were in Denmark at what time, so they could configure troop movements, Steven said. “One day my dad and a woman Resistance member were at Tivoli Gardens, trying to record the insignia on German uniforms, when a sentry yelled, ‘Halt!’ They ran and were shot at, and the woman was hit in the leg. Dad went back to help her, and they hauled him away.”
It was 1944. The Gestapo repeatedly tortured the 19-year-old, hauling him before firing squads, blindfolding him and then firing blanks, his son said. Real execution was imminent when a colonel with whom his family had a connection arranged for his quiet release.
The war was nearing an end. In 1945, the British bombed the Shellhus, which housed both Gestapo officers and political prisoners. “My dad told me that a Resistance fighter grabbed a box of index cards as he fled the ruins, and in it was the name of every collaborator in Denmark,” Steven said. “Within a week, they were all dead.”
After the war, Viltoft decided to leave his native land, his son said. “You can go to a very dark place if so many bad things happen to you and you can’t escape them, so he wanted a new life,” he said.
In 1947, Viltoft, “along with three buddies and twenty-eight bucks,” came to the United States, waiting tables in New York, Florida and Colorado, where he met Lucille Shorba, who was from northeast Minneapolis, Steven said. They were married in 1950.
From 1951 to 1953, he served in Korea with the Army’s 45th Infantry Division, suffering a bayonet wound in close combat. The unit had a very high casualty rate. “When Dad was lying wounded in a tent, his sergeant came through and tossed Purple Hearts at them right and left, like they were candy,” his son said.
Once home, Viltoft began a long career in hotel and restaurant management, working for Minneapolis’ Radisson Flame Room and helping establish Chicago’s famous turnpike-spanning restaurants of that era. In 1962, he joined the Marriott Corp. in Washington, D.C., rising to senior vice president. In 1971, Curt Carlson hired him to run the Radisson Hotel Corp. in Minneapolis, a position he held until a 1985 heart attack led him to semi-retire.
“Then he got a little bored, so he signed up with the Executive Service Corps, a sort of Peace Corps for retired executives,” and was sent to Bulgaria and Romania to help westernize their hotels, Steven said.
Of his war experiences in Denmark and Korea, “Dad was a very typical first-generation American — he just didn’t talk about it,” Steven said. “But for his 75th birthday, I took him fishing, just him and me, in Canada, and then he told me a lot of things. We covered a lot of ground on that trip.”
Steven said he’ll most miss his dad’s wit and good company. “He was reliable, upbeat, optimistic,” he said. “You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who didn’t like him.”
In addition to Steven and his wife of 62 years, Lucille, Viltoft is survived by three daughters, Christine Andersen of Skagen, Denmark; Linda Gammon of Minnetrista, and Karen Rosicka of Eden Prairie, and seven grandchildren. Private family services will be held.
Pamela Miller • 612-673-4290