Living the Norwegian-American dream

The story of Leif Eie, airline executive, role model, and friend

Leif Eie

Photo: Lisa Eie
Leif Eie, retired airline executive, is one of Seattle’s most decorated—and most beloved—Norwegian Americans.

Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American

“Leif Eie truly came to this country with nothing—but with hard work, determination, and talent, he became a force to be reckoned with in Seattle.”

That is how the back cover of Eie’s autobiography, Modern-day Viking: The traveling tales of a true Norwegian, begins—and knowing him personally, I can certainly attest to all of this. Not only has does my good friend have an incredible list of accomplishments behind him, but his success is also infectious, with a strong impact on the lives of those around him.

While I did not get to know Eie (hereafter lovingly referred to as Leif) until only a few years ago when he moved back to Seattle, his influence on me goes indirectly back to my days as schoolgirl. I remember my father telling me that someone had started a new sister city relationship between Seattle and Bergen in Norway, and I was totally intrigued by the idea of our little city hidden away in the northwestern corner of the United States being twinned up with another city on the other side of the world.

I took it upon myself to learn everything I could about Bergen for my school report. Little did I know that it was none other than Leif who started the Sister Cities International program in Seattle and headed up the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association. It was my dream to go to Bergen and see it for myself, so I started saving for a trip there someday. Years later, when I turned 18 and was old enough to strike out on a European trip on my own, I found myself on a SAS flight to Scandinavia to make my dream come true.

Over the years, I would make many trips with SAS, taking the fast polar route to Copenhagen. Little did I know that I had Leif to thank for that, too. In 1964, he became the district sales manager for SAS for the Pacific Northwest, stationed in Seattle. In 1970, he was promoted to northwestern area manager until he retired in 1991. Envisioning and realizing the polar route was one of his biggest accomplishments in this role, as it was instrumental in building up tourism between the Pacific Northwest and Scandinavia—and very convenient for those of us living in Seattle. We were lucky to have gotten an airline executive with so much foresight, and when the route was ended in 2009, many of us wrote letters to the SAS corporate offices in protest.

Leif’s contributions to the Seattle community did not stop with his position as an airline executive and his role with Sister Cities. It is hard to think of any Norwegian or Scandinavian group that he did not support. He was one of the founding members of the Nordic Heritage Museum (today the National Nordic Museum), led the Norwegian-American Chamber of Commerce, sat on trade commissions, and worked tirelessly organizing charitable events. He has been honored by dozens of entities, including the City of Seattle, the state of Washington, the University of Washington, and Pacific Lutheran University. It is no wonder that Leif was knighted by both King Olav V of Norway and King Carl Gustaf XVI of Sweden for his service to the Scandinavian-American community in the United States.

But how did this extraordinary Norwegian American come to realize his American dream?

Leif was born in Flekkefjord in 1929 and grew up in Norway. Like all Norwegians of his generation, he endured the years of the Nazi occupation and its hardships. After the war, he did his mandatory military service in the Norwegian Air Force. As the country was rebuilding itself, life was not always easy, but fortunately he had his musical talent to rely on and brighten up life for everyone he encountered. He played the guitar and sang with various groups, that traveled up and down the coast of Norway. In Oslo, he tried his hand at acting, as he searched for a way to establish a career to make a living.

Leif Eie

Photo courtesy of Leif Eie
With his musical talent, Leif has always been the life of the party.

As luck would have it—for himself and all of us—the happy-go-lucky Norwegian one day saw an ad in the newspaper Aftenposten that the Norwegian America Line was looking for English-speaking crew members, so he decided to apply. Before long, Leif was on his way to New York on the MS Oslofjord, followed by a 56-day cruise in the Mediterranean, and then back to New York. The year was 1952, and he got off the boat in New York again, papers in hand, ready to immigrate to a new land of opportunity. He soon made his way up to the Scandinavian Airlines office on Fifth Avenue and 51st Street and asked if they had a job for him. They did—and the rest is history—a real Norwegian-American success story.

For many years, Leif was happily married to his soulmate, Patricia (he even wrote a tango for her), and they had two children, Lisa and Christian. The couple traveled the world together and spent many happy retirement years in the sun in Mexico and Arizona. After Patricia’s passing, he returned to the Seattle area to be closer to his daughter and son, where he was warmly welcomed back by all his friends in the Pacific Northwest

I finally got to know Leif personally about five years ago, when I was asked to take over the leadership of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association. It was a new role for me, and I knew there was a big legacy I would have to live up to, but Leif was there to offer support and inspiration: he is both my role model and loyal friend. I’ve thrived in this position, and somehow it feels like the fulfillment of a dream that started for me so long ago, as I sat in school wondering what it would be like to travel to the far-off land of Norway.

If there is anyone I would want to be like, it has to be Leif Eie: he is kind, wise, talented, creative, and generous—all of this with a very unique, wry sense of humor. Leif knows how to win friends and influence people. He is truly a force to be reckoned with—a one-of-kind success story and living personification of the Norwegian-American dream.

This article originally appeared in the January 24, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.