70 years later, the interview concludes
A tribute to Arne Brekke, scholar, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and friend
It is not often that a friendship from college days lasts a lifetime and comes full circle nearly 70 years later.
This story is of a man who lived his dream and leaves a treasured legacy for anyone who carries a Norwegian gene in one’s ancestry and is interested in the roots of one’s heritage.
Arne Brekke, my dear friend over eight decades, died Monday, June 25, following complications from surgery. We were planning a get-together later this month.
His life story is one of adventure as a teacher, linguistic scholar, and serial entrepreneur. Sometimes, a few moments of memories are enough to get to know someone who gives you a gift.
Our story of friendship began in 1949 when I, as a sophomore, was an aspiring writer for the student newspaper at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. A Norwegian student came to campus on a scholarship and I was assigned to interview him.
As his story unfolded, he first told me of his youth in fjord country, the seventh of nine children on a goat farm in Vik, a harbor village at the interior of the Sognefjord. As a youth, Arne was intrigued by cruise ships coming through the fjord to dock with tourists who were speaking many languages and seeking learning adventures.
He developed an insatiable thirst for languages. Arne got his aunt, who was originally from England, to teach him English, and a brother to give him lessons in German. He would practice conversations with tourists and locals.
Later, during the German occupation, Arne and his family sometimes fled to the mountains when bombings of cargo ships in the harbor threatened their safety. Yet, in calmer times, Arne would practice his German with soldiers. They dubbed him the “little professor.”
His coming to Luther College was an unexpected change in his life plan, resulting from a stranger’s act of kindness.
A Norwegian immigrant carpenter working as a church-contractor in Cresco, Iowa, wrote a letter to the Sogn Avis (newspaper) in Norwegian, telling that he had not been back to Norway and he would like to re-establish contact with someone in the Vik area about his dream to return to Norway.
Arne responded in English to the writer of the newspaper article, mentioning his desire to learn more English to become a teacher in Norway. His letter was brought by this stranger to officials at Luther College in Decorah, who offered Arne a full-tuition scholarship for a bachelor’s degree.
This unexpected event changed his career plans, leading to a life in academia, as an entrepreneur, and as a philanthropist.
Opportunities kept coming Arne’s way with continued studies at Colorado State University at Fort Collins, and then onward to Cornell University in New York to study historical linguistics, and finally to the University of Chicago to complete a Ph.D. with extensive research in “name interpretation.”
Over the years, Arne became a recognized expert in place-name knowledge, Norwegian farm histories, and name origins. He changed the authentic origins of previously misinterpreted names in Norwegian dictionaries, encyclopedias, and Google postings.
While teaching languages at Luther, Arne’s entrepreneurial spirit was born when he began organizing study tours with students and guiding reunion-type tours for travel companies or airlines. He founded Brekke Scandinavian Travel and Tours, which became increasingly popular and was recognized as the leading tour agency to Norway.
He received the St. Olav Medal from His Majesty King Olav in 1977, after being nominated from Norway for “fostering connections between people of Norwegian descent and the homeland of their ancestors.”
Arne invested in a lifelong legacy of bridging cultures across continents and across generations.
He began identifying and collecting bygdebøker (Norwgian farm and family histories) during heritage tours and returning them as donations to the University of North Dakota Library. Contacts were made with local history centers in all of Norway’s 428 municipalities requesting every bygdebok available, including tracking down those out of print.
After three decades, the collection has now reached 1,800 volumes—the largest, most current, accessible collection in one place, including Norway. In 2010, the library began showcasing the bygdebok collection to the world of the web. (library.und.edu/special-collections/bygdebok). Truly, this represents a gift of a lifetime for future generations.
When we chatted over the phone in recent times, Arne expressed his pride in his family, his grandchildren, and his five great-grandchildren.
He was especially proud of the diversity of his grandchildren’s successes in their respective careers, knowing that they all are deeply invested in their heritage and function as global citizens.
Arne recently received a smart phone as a gift from his family. He said that this tech tool was a new challenge and a change.
“Just think,” he told me, “Not only can I talk to my great-grandchildren and see their faces on my iPhone, but I can literally carry a link to all of Norway in my shirt pocket.”
It is said that life comes full circle. Now, I’m writing this story of Arne as a tribute that once started as a random interview and resulted in nearly 70 years of friendship.
This article originally appeared in the July 13, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.