The story of a life, Sig leaves a legacy
You probably know a few folks who were born in Norway, immigrated to the U.S., and were highly successful in their new country.
Sigurd R. Wathne did it differently. Sig Jr., as he was known, was born to Norwegian immigrant parents, Sigurd Sr. and Ella Wathne, on October 3, 1926, in Los Angeles, California. His father was a Norwegian soccer Olympian, who with other Norwegians and Europeans formed the Los Angeles Athletic Club. The senior Sigurd Wathne had jumped ship in San Pedro, California, in 1922.
When young Sig was four years old, his parents decided to return to their homeland of Norway. It was the beginning of the Great Depression and the couple could not keep up with mortgage payments. Initially they settled with his grandparents in Bergen where the family had a shipping business.
Eventually the family settled in Mandal where Sig Sr. built a successful automobile repair garage and a Shell gas station. He had experience from his days in the United States as a mechanic and station attendant.
“My second homeland, Norway, appeared quite backward to me, LA sophisticate that I was at the age of about seven or eight. For example, the home that we moved into, like most homes in that small town in that era lacked the grace note of an indoor bathroom…
“But Mandal was truly a fascinating little town to explore—the Riviera of Scandinavia, if a one-kilometer-long sandy beach lapped by chilly North Seas waters at the southerly point of the country qualifies for such a grand title,” he wrote.
Wathne details the hardships of the Nazi occupation of Norway during World War II and tells how he outwitted German soldiers who were confiscating all radios. If any radios were found, punishment could lead to death. His mother urged him to hide the family radio. They counted on it for news from the BBC in the evening.
“I saw the outhouse and decided to drop the radio where they weren’t likely to search right down into the muck.”
Both his parents and a grandfather died in 1942 when he was 14 years old, and he had to live with relatives.
For many years as a youngster, he suffered from osteomyelitis, a bacteria that infected a leg bone with painful swelling that caused his knee to become almost immobile. Doctors tried various measures including lancing the boils, braces, and medications. Finally when penicillin became available, the infection was mostly cured.
He had always been a tinkerer, checking out parts and creating items. And he loved cameras, radios, and emerging electronics. While living with an aunt and uncle he devised a way to make simple crystal radio sets that would allow Norwegians to listen to the closest BBC station broadcasting from Scotland.
His interest in electronics began in high school and in 1946 he earned his radio license, which meant he was eligible to serve in the Norwegian merchant marine. He hired onto a freighter as radio officer. After 14 months aboard the ship, he signed off and began planning his return to America.
Sig’s mother had wisely brought a certified copy of his American birth records to Norway, making possible his re-entry to the U.S. in 1947.
He worked with a number of companies in electronics and communications and in 1982 together with his son, Kail, Sig Wathne founded SIKAMA, an electronic manufacturing company in Santa Barbara, California. Sig was president until retiring in 2014. The private company continues on under the leadership of Kail.
Sig, who will be 90 in October, is still going strong. He and his girlfriend, Barbara Gaughen-Muller, have just returned from a Wathne family reunion in Iceland where four Wathne brothers started the herring shipping industry in the mid 1800s.
Wathne’s autobiography is a wonderful gift for his sons, Kail and Jarl, their spouses, and three grandsons. It would be an interesting read for those with Norwegian heritage, and a reminder to those of us of a certain age to write something about our lives for the coming generations. In 2015 Sig was named finalist by the Beverly Hills International Book Awards for best autobiography. The book is dedicated to his beloved wife, Mariellen, who died in 2010, and can be purchased on Amazon.
Shelby Gilje is a longtime Pacific Northwest journalist who wrote for The Seattle Times, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Bremerton Sun (now The Kitsap Sun), and The Anchorage Daily News.
This article originally appeared in the July 29, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.