A life of adventure – Norwegian-American Knut Karlsen profiled

By Solveig Lee

For the Norwegian American Weekly

Though a long-time resident of Washington state, Knut Karlsen grew up across the Akerselva River from Oslo in what was once a separate town named Grünerløkka.  Due to the river, several factories had been built there, and the area became home for many in the working class.  Youth received their education at the local gymnasium. In 1914, however, the neighborhood built its own sports club, Grüner.  This was a great arena for all kinds of sports—including skating, playing soccer, wrestling, or boxing. Knut could look across from his fourth story apartment and view the arena directly across the street.  For three years, Knut boxed.

Knut’s grandfather, Emil, had also lived nearby.  He took care of the horses for Nora, the largest brewery in Oslo.  He not only had perfect attendance for 32 years; Emil came up with an idea to improve business.  Nora did not own a horse in those horse and wagon days.  It was Emil’s idea to cross-breed a Belgian horse with a Norwegian fjord horse to deliver the goods.

Knut’s father, Rangvald, worked at the Freia chocolate factory.  He, too, had perfect attendance—fifty years without taking a day off for sick leave. Rangvald liked Freia chocolate!  He, however, also concentrated on a new candy bar.  It was he who came up with a special chocolate bar known as Kvikk Lunsj, similar to Kit Kat in America.  The candy became popular to eat for lunch.  It was also a favorite to take to the mountains on ski and hiking trips. Kvikk Lunsj made lots of money for the company. To be sure, Freia’s slogan, “En lite stykke Norge,” fits!

During World War II, Knut was still in school.  The Freia factory in Oslo was closed for making candy.  Five men, however, kept watch over the building. Food was scarce in Norway at the time, but Knut often made his way to the chocolate factory in the late afternoon where Svenska Suppe was served.

When the war was over, Knut was sixteen years of age.  For a time, he worked as a delivery boy. In 1947, Knut, at age 18, hired on in the merchant marines.  Knut sailed to Delaware and had his first glimpse of America.

Europe was in great need of food.  Knut sailed aboard a ship that headed for Galveston, Texas.  There, the ship was loaded with wheat—the first ship used under the Marshall Plan in a program that helped Europe get on its feet.  Journalists flooded the port at Galveston to capture the news for the world about this ship taking off for Marseilles, France. When the ship arrived in France, many of the same journalists were there.

In those days, news was run before the regular feature in movie theatres.  At one theatre in Oslo, a newsreel was shown hourly to help the people keep in contact with what was happening worldwide.

After France, the ship on which Knut sailed headed to the Black Sea in Russia where grain was loaded.  The load was taken to Bombay, India.

About 1950, Knut was drafted into the Norwegian Navy where he spent one year as a gunner on a destroyer that patrolled the Norwegian coast.

About that time, Knut and a friend, Thor Mangar, talked about seeing the world.  Soon, they hired on to a freighter that sailed west: Oslo, Panama, Long Beach, San Francisco, and, finally, the destination—Vancouver, B.C.

Life began in America.  Knut and others were hired by Bloedel Logging Company to work in the lumber camp.  Knut was the choker man—a hard job that pulled logs from their settings in the forest to the mills.  Work took place until Christmas.  Then, snow, a strike, and the fire season stifled all possibility of work.  No work, no money!  Word was received that apple pickers were needed in the Canadian Okanogan country near Colona.  So, Knut picked apples by day, worked in the cannery at night. At that time, Knut contracted pneumonia, then a fever that created blisters on his eyeballs.  Knut lost his sight.

An immigrant, no work, no money, and no sight!  Knut remembers so well the Lutheran pastor who visited him in the hospital in Colona, then took him to stay in the parsonage.  A few weeks later, Knut was back in Vancouver, B.C., with Thor.  Albert Ryland, a Seattle attorney, heard of Knut’s plight.  (Mr. Ryland was a president of the Seattle S/N Leif Erikson lodge.)  He made the trip north. He found that Thor had a job so was able to rent a small room with a cot in a boarding house; Knut had no money and could not see to work so slept up in the attic on an old mattress.

When Mr. Ryland saw the situation, he said, “You can’t live like this!”  He moved both Knut and Thor to the YMCA in Vancouver.  He loaned Knut money for his medical bills as well as for food for the two men. After five months, Knut and Thor got papers to obtain a visa to move to the USA.  Mr. Ryland sponsored both men.

At that time, Albert Ryland owned 160 acres. of land near Moses Lake.  Rocks needed to be removed from the grounds to make it tillable for farming.  Perhaps the job created no excitement, but it provided work that enabled Knut to start paying back Mr. Ryland.  After he had completed that job and getting his sight back, Knut still owed Mr. Ryland $125.

Knut turned to fishing.  It was a good season!  When Knut returned to Seattle, he immediately contacted Mr. Ryland.  He says, “That was the proudest moment I had in my life—when I paid Mr. Ryland.”  The two enjoyed a happy evening when Knut could take Mr. Ryland to dinner.

Again, Knut fished.  Blindness returned.  He was taken to the Marine Hospital in Seattle for treatment.  At that time, a group of Eskimos had been brought to the hospital for snow blindness.  A doctor from San Francisco came to Seattle with an ointment to treat them.  He studied Knut’s case.  As for Knut, his only sight was to see light and dark.  The ointment could do him no more harm; maybe it would help.  In three days, Knut’s eyes started to get better.  The Eskimos at the hospital improved as well and returned home in a week.

Knut became a member of S/N Leif Erikson Lodge in Seattle.  He cannot forget the friendship extended to him by members of S/N Leif Erikson Lodge.

Through the years, Knut has extended leadership in many capacities in the Norwegian community: 1963-66—first president of Leif Erikson Sports Director, then became Leif Erikson lodge president (1972-3), served on the Leif Erikson council (1982-84); as S/N District Sports Director (1973-78), District #2 President (1978-82), and International S/N Director from Leif Erikson (1984-90).

Through the help of Leif Eie, then Area Director of Scandinavian Airlines (Seattle), the Ski for Light program was brought to America. In 1974, Knut and his wife, Svea, started the Ski for Light program, an organization to teach visually impaired and mobility-impaired adults how to cross-country ski in Stampede Pass in the Cascade Mountains.  An example of the dedication of helping with the Ski for Light Program is that of Erling and Hjørdis Berg from the Seattle area.  On his 80th birthday, Erling bought his own birthday present, new skis and boots.  All who know Erling are aware of where and why he would use these skis.

The Sons of Norway has been active and involved in the Tubfrim’s stamp program since 1986.  Knut has been the international chairperson for Tubfrim.  This program helps handicapped children in Norway. Together, Knut and Svea have chaired this program.

Knut and Svea Karlsen found the Leif Erikson’s 100-acre recreation area known as Norway Park, located 60 miles north of Seattle, where they and many lodge members live.

In 1998, Knut Karlsen was decorated as Knight of the Royal Order of Merit, from King Harald by Norwegian Ambassador to the United States, Tom Vraalsen.

A point of interest is that Knut became the third generation in his family to be honored by the Norwegian king; his grandfather, Emil Karlsen, by King Haakon VII in 1934; his father, Rangvald Karlsen, by King Olav V in 1950 and King Olav V in 1970, and Knut Karlsen in 1998 by King Harald VI, at which time Knut was recognized for his dedication and achievements for 55 years as a Sons of Norway member.

This article was originally published in the Norwegian American Weekly on August 21, 2009. For more information about the Weekly, please email us at subscribe@norway.com.

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