In some ways, Margaret Hayford O’Leary lived her whole life with her feet planted in two lands.
There was, of course, Minnesota, where she taught for more than 40 years at St. Olaf College in Northfield, often with her guitar in hand.
And then there was Norway, her ancestral land across the sea. Her love for the country radiated across her music, her home design, her knitting patterns, her teaching.
O’Leary spent four decades sharing this love with students and colleagues. During her career, she co-authored language textbooks, published a book on Norwegian culture and customs and spent summers teaching at the University of Oslo International Summer School. In 2016, she was awarded the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit, an honor reserved for those who have contributed “outstanding service in the interests of Norway.”
O’Leary, known as an expert in all things Norwegian, died June 30 of cancer in Northfield. She was 67.
Raised in Richfield, O’Leary found herself captivated by Norway from childhood. She began learning Norwegian as a young teenager at Skogfjorden, the Concordia College Norwegian Language Village. Her studies paid off.
“Margaret truly sounded like a native speaker,” said Solveig Zempel, a retired Norwegian professor and longtime colleague at St. Olaf. “She had really mastered the language.”
O’Leary often shared her love of Norwegian culture through song. She strummed her guitar and sang with her students to teach them vocabulary, imparting a sense of the language’s musical quality.
“I was always a little envious. I knew it made a big difference in her classroom,” Zempel said. “She was a very dynamic teacher and a wonderful musician.”
Outside of work, her love for Norway was evident in her hobbies and home life, her family said. As the lead singer of a folk group called the Lost Norwegians, she helped her bandmates fine-tune their pronunciations and shared stories about Norway with audiences between songs.
When O’Leary and her husband, Douglas, built their house in Northfield, she showed the builder photos of Norwegian home interiors for reference. The house has the light wood, knotty pine staircase, openness and natural lighting so characteristic of the homes she admired, said her son Sean Hayford O’Leary, of Richfield.
She knitted sweaters with Norwegians designs, including a tiny version for her twin grandchildren, born a year ago on Syttende Mai (May 17), Norwegian Constitution Day. The family often made lefse, a Norwegian flatbread, the day after Thanksgiving.
After her cancer diagnosis, she sometimes told her family, “Den tid, den sorg.” It means “that time, that sorrow,” an expression to remind them not to grieve before she was gone, to cross that bridge when it came, Sean said.
She remained a teacher until the end.
“She finished her last grades for her last class in the hospital,” Sean said. “She was that dedicated.”
Just a few weeks before she went into the hospital, O’Leary went to St. Olaf to lead a Norwegian anthem on Syttende Mai. She wore a bunad for the occasion, a formal Norwegian costume reserved for special events. A thin tube carrying oxygen looped across her face. As the music played, O’Leary raised her hand and directed the crowd in song.
“Ja, vi elsker dette landet,” they began together. “Yes, we love this land.”
In addition to her son and husband, O’Leary’s survivors include daughter Kari, of Brainerd, and son Erik, of Minneapolis; her mother, Rachael Hayford, of Richfield; her sister, Andrea Nelson, of Mound; and two grandchildren. Services are planned for 2 p.m. July 28 at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Northfield.