Norwegian & American Women of Distinction: Borghild Margrethe Dahl
Borghild Margrethe Dahl (1890-1984), an inspirational educator
Norma Kjenstad Barnes & Jill Beatty
Daughters of Norway
Borghild Margrethe Dahl was born on February 6, 1890, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Norwegian immigrants Peder Mogens Dahl and Ingeborg Knudsdatter Haugseth. Her parents emigrated from the Rendal area in Hedmark to Minneapolis in the 1880s. As a young child, she suffered with severely impaired vision. She had a tremendous desire to participate in everyday life, and through her tenacity she succeeded.
“I had only one eye, and it was so covered with dense scars that I had to do all my seeing through one small opening in the left of the eye. I could see a book only by holding it up close to my face and by straining my one eye as hard as I could to the left.” She refused to be pitied, refused to be considered “different.” As a child, she wanted to play hopscotch with other children, but she couldn’t see the markings. So after the other children had gone home, she got down on the ground and crawled along with her eye near to the marks. She memorized every bit of the ground where she and her friends played and soon became an expert. She did her reading at home, holding a book of large print so close to her eye that her eyelashes brushed the pages.
In spite of her vision impairment and against the advice of many, Dahl attended college and received her Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Minnesota in 1912. From 1912 to 1922 she taught at several Midwest high schools. Dahl earned an M.A. at Columbia University in 1923. She started teaching in the tiny village of Twin Valley, Minnesota, and continued until she became a professor of journalism and literature at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. She taught there for 13 years, lecturing before women’s clubs and giving radio talks about books and authors. “In the back of my mind,” she writes, “there had always lurked a fear of total blindness. In order to overcome this, I had adopted a cheerful, almost hilarious, attitude toward life.”
In 1924 she became the first woman of a foreign country to be selected Norsk Akademiker at the University of Oslo in Norway. Her first book, Glimpses of Norway, was privately printed in 1935, and was followed by numerous books of interest to young adults. She also wrote for younger children. In discussing her work, Dahl said, “Every person who writes draws on his own life or his environment or what others tell him or what he reads. However indirect these may be, they still reflect some phase of his own living.”
A miracle happened in 1943, when she was 52 years old. A new eye correction surgery was available at the famous Mayo Clinic. She had the surgery and it corrected her vision, so she could see 40 times as well as she had ever been able to see before.
A new and exciting world of loveliness opened before her. She now found it thrilling even to wash dishes in the kitchen sink. “I begin to play with the white fluffy suds in the dishpan,” she writes. “I dip my hands into them and I pick up a ball of tiny soap bubbles. I hold them up against the light and in each of them, I can see the brilliant colors of a miniature rainbow.”
As she looked through the window above the kitchen sink, she saw “the flapping gray-back wings of the sparrows flying through the thick, falling snow.”
She found such ecstasy looking at the soap bubbles and sparrows and small wonders of life that she closed her book with these words: “‘Dear Lord,’ I whisper, ‘Our Father in heaven, I thank Thee. I thank Thee.’”
Dahl’s 1944 autobiography I Wanted to See told the inspirational story of her struggles and successes. In all, she wrote 16 books for young people during her career, most of which drew heavily on her experiences as the daughter of Norwegian parents living in the Midwest.
In 1950, Dahl received the St. Olaf award from the King of Norway for her work in promoting good relations between Norway and the United States. In 1980, she received the Outstanding Achievement Award from the University of Minn. She died on February 20, 1984, in Burnsville, Minn., at the age of 94.
Her inspirational life also inspired the women who have been meeting to organize a new Daughters of Norway lodge in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Part of that process is researching a Norwegian woman who has made a significant contribution in life to name the lodge after. After narrowing it down to five candidates, the women all voted for the one they felt exemplified their lodge identity. Borghild Dahl was chosen as the namesake for the new Daughters of Norway lodge.
Daughters of Norway will institute the new Borghild Dahl Lodge #54 in a ceremony at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 6, 2017, at Peace Lutheran Church, 5509 W. 41st St., Sioux Falls, SD 57106. Borghild Dahl’s inspirational life story and cultural contributions will be highlighted in the program at the Institution.
For information on joining the new lodge, any women of Scandinavian ancestry in the Sioux Falls area can contact Norma Barnes at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (605) 362-5898. The website is www.daughtersofnorway.org.
University of Success, Og Mandino, pgs. 22-23 (Bantam Books Inc, 1982).
Something About the Author, ed. Anne Commire (Detroit: Gale Research, 1975), 7:56-58.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 10, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.