H. Richard Christopher, 1939 – 2022
In loving memory
CYNTHIA ELYCE RUBIN
The Norwegian American
My friend, H. Richard Christopher, 83, of Letcher, S.D., died March 23, 2022, in Mitchell, S.D. Burial was at Trinity Lutheran Cemetery in rural Storla, S.D.
Harry Richard Christopher was born in Mitchell on Feb. 10, 1939 to Harry and Amanda (Roti) Christopher. He attended eight years of elementary school at Leet School in Elliott Township and completed Letcher High School. He lived all his life on the family farm halfway between Woonsocket and Mount Vernon, S.D.
Richard and his brother, Donald, worked on the family farm beginning at an early age because of their father’s ongoing health problems. Although it required great sacrifice on their parts, they never complained about helping to care for their mother and younger sister, Nancy.
Richard was, above all, a self-taught local historian, who compiled by cutting and pasting and captioning a huge 500-page hardbound volume, entitled Midway 1882-1982. (Midway was a small store located 1 mile east of the Trinity Lutheran Church.) The Midway community consists of the rural areas of Woonsocket, Mount Vernon, Letcher and Plankinton.
His friend, Milton Nelson, wrote a tribute: “When Trinity Lutheran Church and our community approached her 100th birthday, of course, someone had to compile the history and data and put it in a book. But who had the knowledge, the special talent it takes, and who would sacrifice the time needed? This task was undertaken by the person who has devoted a good share of his life to be ‘Mr. Music’ for our church and community. He first sat at a piano in our church at age 11 and since that day has filled all our lives with his own special gift …You can’t spend much time with him without his pulling out a picture or sharing some interesting anecdote about our community. Dozens of boxes of books, pictures, and old newspapers fill his study. For years, people have brought him pictures and memorabilia knowing he’d treasure it and make a mental index for some future use…. His friends and acquaintances know him to be a humble man, refusing any sort of praise or accolades. You and I know that he deserves them! For the hundreds of hours of preparation and work without a penny of recompense, for this unique mix of history and humor, facts and fun, we thank you, Richard Christopher, from the bottom of our hearts!”
The Midway region of America was also the stomping ground of Ole S. Leeland, pioneer photographer (1870-1939) who worked out of Mount Vernon and then Mitchell. When I started my research on Leeland’s life and works, I sent out queries seeking information about this obscure Norwegian-American photographer, and so it was that Richard Christopher read my query and answered it. In response, I telephoned him. He would later tell me many times how wondrous it was to receive a call in his barn from New York City. That conversation in the year 2000 and correspondences ended up with a visit to his farm where I found an 1883 one-room schoolhouse in Christopher’s yard.
He loved his school, and when the Elliott township school district was consolidated in 1968, Leet School, like so much in rural America, became a useless anachronism. The building and its contents were sold at auction. In an immediate and direct act of grassroots historic preservation, Christopher paid $115 for the 85-year-old building and $64.50 for much of the contents. Lifted and carried by a local haystack mover, the old structure was placed on a new foundation in Christopher’s yard. He then began his years of collecting furnishings: textbooks, a cast-iron coal stove, a water cooler, the original school bell—and the list goes on.
In the 1880s, the Norwegian immigrants who homesteaded around Letcher valued education. Hardanger native Jens Christopher, Richard’s great-grandfather wanted a centralized school for the neighbor children. He joined with early postmaster Lorenzo W. “John” Leet and several neighbors who made plans to build a school, naming it for John Leet because it was close to the Leet farm.
In June 2001, when I visited the Museum of Migration in Ottestad outside of Hamar, Norway, I learned from the museum director that there was only one building he could not locate for the open-air museum, a Norwegian-American one-room schoolhouse. When I returned home, I contacted Richard. We discussed it. I contacted the museum, and the rest is history. Richard decided to donate the schoolhouse to Norway.
Before dismantling the school in 2007, Richard hosted an open house. I attended and watched as both shiny new cars and mud-splattered pickups arrived. More than 125 people were in attendance, including two former Leet School teachers and six of Richard’s fellow students from 1945 to 1953. There were descendants of John Leet and eight of Jens Christopher’s great-grandchildren.
Richard cleaned and tidied up the schoolhouse. With customary attention to detail, Richard claimed he did some washing, a little dusting and “moved the broom.” Workers painstakingly deconstructed the school, board by board, taking two weeks to dismantle and pack the building into a 40-foot container for its trip to Norway.
In June 2015, thanks to the generosity of Karen Wickre of San Francisco, Richard, Karen, Ruth Freiburghaus, a Swiss friend who had visited South Dakota a number of times with me, and Jay Wickre traveled to Norway for the newly named Leet-Christopher School opening. As the local Ottestad school band played and marched to the school on the museum grounds as everyone followed, Richard and I held hands as his beloved schoolhouse, the only building from South Dakota at the Museum of Migration, came into view. This was his first visit to a homeland for which he had always had great reverence and love.
Richard rang the school bell and cut the ribbon; then we all entered the schoolhouse. People quickly took their places at desks while Richard sat at the organ and played traditional school songs. The Norwegian audience enthusiastically sang along to “School Days” and “Home on the Range.”
Karen Wickre sums it up best: “I’ll never forget what a unique and delightful character Richard was—very observant, in tune with human foibles (including his own), with a clever wit and also gracious, thoughtful, and enterprising in all things. He truly was one of a kind.”
As for me, I already miss the frequent phone calls with his opening salutation, “Hello, Lady Rubin.” Rest in peace, dear Richard.
Midway 1882-1982 can be found in the Norwegian-American Historical Association Archives as well as certain records of the Trinity Lutheran Church in Storla.
Photos courtesy of Cynthia Elyce Rubin
This article originally appeared in the May 27, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.