Honoring the visionary
Victoria Hofmo remembers the life of Norwegian-American enthusiast Svein Skårdal
I was filled with deep sadness, when I heard of the passing of Svein Arvid Skårdal of Vanse, Norway. He had touched so many lives that I heard the news within minutes, from four different sources from both sides of the Atlantic. He truly served as a bridge between the Norway and the Norwegian-American community.
It was hard to imagine that such a force was gone. He had been fighting against the cancer that invaded his body for a while. But, one would not know it. Just last year, he was setting up tables, organizing bands and tirelessly filling in wherever needed at the American Festival in Vanse, Norway, an event that he was instrumental in bringing to fruition.
Where is Vanse, you may ask? It is a town of 1,200 in the Lister region of Norway. If you have not heard of it before, you soon will, because Svein, along with others from this small town, have created a destination spot, in an authentic organic manner by tapping into one of this small town’s claims to fame. Its long and rich connection to America, especially in the area of south Brooklyn.
From this town, each generation can claim alternating countries of birth: farfar (grandfather) from Brooklyn, far (father) from Norway and son from Brooklyn. Svein felt that this connection should absolutely be honored and celebrated. To that end, he opened the 8th Avenue Supper Club with his wife Liv Siri Jølle Skårdal. It is located on the town square, later renamed Brooklyn Square, and stands next to Trunken, a store that features American-made and American-inspired goods. The 8th Avenue Bar and Supper Club serves American food and offers talented musicians playing American-style sounds: rock, R&B, blues and country.
The second floor is a different matter. It had been set up like a Brooklyn apartment circa 1960. It serves as museum and fun way to relive the past. And it succeeds. Two friends of mine who had lived in Brooklyn saw the formica kitchen table and their eyes lit up as they reminisced about how they had the same table in Brooklyn. Their mother would stand on it to scrub the ceiling – very Norwegian indeed.
But Svein took this connection further: Not only did he create the 8th Avenue Bar and Supper Club, he worked on the naming of Brooklyn Square, and was instrumental in creating the American Festival. He also wished to create Sister Communities between Vanse and Brooklyn. He was tenacious, pursuing this for years. He even visited Brooklyn with a delegation to speak with New York City Councilman Vincent J. Gentile’s office about officially creating this agreement. It was at this meeting that I felt and understood his utter conviction and sincerity of purpose for this project. It was if preserving this connection for future generations was his calling. His passion was so moving that I was touched and further motivated to make the Sister Communities Agreement happen.
I saw Svein in New York that following February in 2011. He had stumbled upon the Danish Athletic Club in Brooklyn, by coincidence on the same day that we were holding Fastelavn (Danish Mardi Gras). He came with Hans-Egil Berven and colleague Alf jumped right in without hesitation, further evidence that these Norwegians are less reserved than many of their compatriots and certainly are infused with a dose of American blood. As always, Svein was a good sport.
The next time I saw Svein was at the American Festival in Vanse 2011. He was smiling, fixing, doing and doing – tirelessly, really. And I got to see first-hand his vision and fruits of his labor. This was the sixth year of the festival and it was a great success. Little Vanse, had become a destination and in a way that honored and celebrated something authentic to this town, its connection to America.
It was in February 2012 that I learned about Svein’s passing. Just four months earlier we had held a ceremony where Councilman Gentile signed the Sister Communities Agreement. We also planted a Norwegian maple tree in Leif Ericsson Park in Brooklyn to honor those who lost their lives in the Oslo massacre. With this in mind, at this year’s American Festival, the Scandinavian East Coast Museum planted a maple in Vanse Park in memory of Svein. It is a way for us to honor this man, this visionary who never gave up on realizing his dream and always did so with kindness.
A skål to Svein – for the man, his dream and his realization!
This article originally appeared in the Aug. 24, 2012 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.