As a boy in the 1930s, Gerhard Haukebo didn't let his small-town existence stifle dreams of a bigger world. According to family lore, the young Haukebo thought he might make his way to China if he dug a really deep hole.
Eventually, he did make it to China, but not by digging. Haukebo, who died Oct. 21 at age 84 at his home in Pelican Rapids, Minn., joined the Marine Corps, spent a year in Japan and after starting a family taught school in Germany, where he noticed that his children started picking up the language after casual interaction with other kids on the playground.
Haukebo imported that idea to his employer in 1961, when he suggested that Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., use immersion techniques to teach students foreign languages. That idea blossomed into Concordia Language Villages, a collection of language camps in the United States and China that have thrived, with nearly 11,000 children from around the world having learned 15 languages in various interactive settings.
Christine Schulze, vice president for Concordia Language Villages at Concordia College, said villagers of all ages have been saddened by his passing.
"Gerry's 'brainstorm' was way ahead of its time five decades ago, and now language teaching is never separated from its cultural context," she said. "Concordia Language Villages endures today from the vision and determination of one man."
Haukebo was born in Underwood, Minn., and attended school there and in Roseau, Minn. In 1950, he married Doris Mae Alley of Roseau. They had four children and set up house in Minneapolis, where Gerry finished school at the University of Minnesota and Doris attended nursing school.
In 1967, Haukebo became Moorhead State University's director of student teaching. Eventually he was promoted to vice president for public affairs.
Though Haukebo was publicly best known for founding the language camps, daughter Heidi Winter said he had a rich personal life defined by deep friendships.
"He used to say to all of us that everyone is exceptional at something and you just need to find it and bring it out," Winter said. "He was really tuned into every moment."
Winter said that when he and Doris visited a place, they were the kinds of travelers who wanted to become intimately familiar with the people and the culture. Sometimes that meant riding a camel, taking a rickshaw through the heart of a village or learning a local dance.
That adventurous spirit and curiosity weren't limited to places on a map. Winter said her parents were always willing to tackle a challenge. When they bought land on a remote island on a lake in Canada, everyone in the family was responsible for helping build their rustic cabin, even though none was a skilled carpenter. What mattered was that everyone participated. So when grandchildren arrived, they were responsible for helping build an addition.
"There was a twinkle in his eye -- a cousin said he was lit from within," said Winter. "He had a joy for life."
In addition to his wife and daughter, Haukebo is survived by another daughter, Beth of Minneapolis; two sons, Joseph of Angel Fire, N.M., and John of Detroit Lakes; two sisters, Clarice Falk of Roseau and Lois Swenson of Bismarck, N.D., a brother, Noel of Bozeman, Mont., and seven grandchildren. Services have been held.
Jim Buchta 612-673-7376