A Norwegian Fulbright reunion

Photo courtesy of Larrie Wanberg Astronaut Dr. Harrison “Jack” Schmitt (left) and Dr. Larrie Wanberg reminisce their career paths “seeded” as Fulbright students in Norway from 1957-58.

Photo: Warner Knudson
Astronaut Dr. Harrison “Jack” Schmitt (left) and Dr. Larrie Wanberg reminisce their career paths “seeded” as Fulbright students in Norway from 1957-58.

Two former Fulbright students to Norway discuss their career trajectories after Norwegian experience

Larrie Wanberg
Feature Editor

A reunion of two Fulbright students to Norway 55 years ago took place at the Kennedy Legacy Symposium in Bismarck last week, when Senator Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, the first scientist on the moon, was speaking on “Kennedy and the Space Program” to a capacity crowd at Bismarck State College. He received a standing ovation at the completion of his talk.

A dozen nationally-known scholars spoke at the two-day event.

It was a reunion of sorts for me, as Jack and I were Fulbright students together at the University of Oslo in 1957-58. We reflected on the impact that our Norway studies had on our respective careers.

He studied geology, especially some specimens of glacial rocks in the fjord country. I was studying Norwayʼs unique “Nature-based” treatment of disturbed and disadvantaged children in a series of residential treatment centers in rural areas.

At a break in his schedule, we went into an empty classroom and reminisced for 40 minutes.

“How did your studies of rocks in Norway lead you on a track to NASA, becoming a jet pilot, and eventually being selected into the astronaut program?” I asked.

He described how the rocks that he studied were of significant interest to scientists and he continued his studies for a doctorate at Harvard University.

NASA was seeking a scientist for the Apollo 17 flight and he was selected. Jack was the one on TV news clips of the moon exploration who was hopping, skipping and singing as he was picking up moon rock samples.

Later, he was elected to the US Senate from New Mexico, became a university professor/consultant and a researcher/lecturer.

During his formal talk, he detailed the development of NASA, based largely on President Kennedyʼs inspiration to beat the Russians to the moon and Jack emphasized how important the Presidentʼs spirit and support was in the early stages of NASA.

During a question-and-answer period, he explained why he thought Americans won the space race, even though the Russians had a head start with “Sputnik.”

The Russians mainly involved top scientists in a bureaucratic structure of topdown authority, he said, while we essentially used three of the top science-and project management experts, who directed the program, and teams of young specialists did much of the piecework. The teams would receive a challenge one day to solve a component problem, they would stay up all night to work on it, and deliver a solution in the morning for testing.

These bright minds, he believed, were a major factor in the space program advancing so rapidly and successfully.

The symposium was a world-class program for 350 attendees over two days to hear the opinions and shared experiences of top experts and scholars in respective fields of history and to learn about the legacy of one of Americaʼs most popular presidents.

Reminiscing our student days in a quiet place, we recalled our weekends when we interacted with the host nation culture.

As a group, we organized a team of five “Fulbrighters” who played basketball against a team of Norwegian soccer coaches to demo the game, as basketball was not common in Norway at that time. Often without a referee, it was a fun time with frequent breaks to explain the game.

On one occasion, the soccer coaches taught us “their game.” I remember after a warm up, I was nearly exhausted from all the running and most of the time without the ball.

In the skiing season, the “shoe was on the other foot” once again. Most Fulbrighters in Oslo were “flatlanders.” At our beginning levels on the slopes, we did not learn from coaches, rather from Norwegian peers and sometimes from school children of host families that we became acquainted with.

Some of us practiced on the lighted night trails close by, where five-year-olds could out-ski you, but as the season went on, we became respectable on a down hill run and respected for our efforts to learn as adults.

A culmination adventure happened during the Easter migration to ski in the mountains. A team of American Fulbrighters and two Norwegians, with skis on their shoulders during the steepest parts, climbed the two highest peaks in Norway on two successive days and skied down the other side in wide sweeping turns in powder snow with exhilaration and knees turning to jelly from exertion.

In December 1958, I married Bjørg, a Norwegian citizen from Voss, who I had met in Norway. She was studying on a Fulbright scholarship to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. In the early 1970s, Jack flew into Denver one weekend to visit with my family that was then living in a mountain town of Evergreen. He was a big hit talking about space with our four children and later at a Sunday School program.

In counterpoint, he asked where my Fulbright studies lead me? I replied in summary that I got intrigued by “three worlds” – the cultural conflict of the Indigenous Peoples above the Arctic Circle, the impacts of Norwayʼs occupation during WWII, and the transplanted values of Norwegian immigrants that heavily populated my home state of North Dakota.

Career-wise, I went on to serve 27 years of military service in the treatment of children, families and soldiers. Three of those years were in doctoral studies of “American Indian Values” on four reservation communities in N.D. The bulk of my career in military service was in treatment of “Wounded Warriors,” and ending in 1981 as project officer with the “DOD Military Child Care Project.” The seeds of our career paths originated in large part from our studies in Norway – teaching, research, documenting life stories and pursuing independent life work.

Jackʼs recent book, “Return to the Moon: Explorations, Energy and Enterprise in the Human Settlement of Space,” was sold out at the conference.

Besides meeting with Jack, the Kennedy Symposium had a deep meaning for me, as I was assigned in D.C. at the time of the assassination to a mental health clinic adjacent to Arlington Cemetery and serving the near-by Pentagon. I could hear the volley of the rifle honor guard at the internment and faint taps playing while on duty at the Army Dispensary, seeing patients in the ER distraught by the loss of our President.

At the Symposium, coming full circle from student days in Norway, the words of President Kennedy rang in my ears: “Wisdom is the child of experience.”

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 15, 2013 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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Larrie Wanberg

Larrie Wanberg, 1920–2021, contributed features to The Norwegian American for many years, drawing on eight decades of life experience highlighted by three career recognitions: as a researcher through a Fulbright Scholarship to Norway in 1957; as a health care provider in behavioral science through a 27-year military career and awarded upon retirement in 1981 the highest non-combat medal, the Legion of Merit medal; as an educator, through a 50-year career in college education, culminating in the 2010 Public Scholar award at the UND Center for Community Engagement. Wanberg passed away in May, 2021.