True inspiration

Photos: The Dakota Student / Keisuke Yoshimura After the conversation, Kushner spoke with students.

“A Conversation with Tony Kushner,” respected screenwriter, inspires at UND

Larrie Wanberg

Feature Editor

The evening was called “A Conversation with Tony Kushner.”

The auditorium was filled with people to hear the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, an Emmy Award, two Tony Awards, three Obie Awards, an Oscar nomination, and known most recently for his movie script of “Lincoln.”

“Portrait of an Artist” was the theme of the annual Writers Conference at UND in March that brought together a weeklong menu of well-known writers, poets, playwrights and filmmakers. Individual artist’s performances and panel discussions were an extraordinary event for students, faculty and the public.

At this free public event, Kushner engaged the entire audience as a collective group in the same manner as he did with individuals earlier in the day, including a conversation with me.

The key words that I noted from his remarks while interviewed on stage were…Truth…authentic… awareness…social justice…equality…the power of citizens to vote…and the role media in its various formats can play in social change.

His message was inspiring and extended a half hour beyond the allotted time, to the delight of the audience.

The highlight for me came earlier in the day, when I had a chance for a brief personal conversation with Tony Kushner. He was friendly, engaging and personable, with a charisma that seemed as if you were the only one standing before him in a crowd. He extended a warm handshake and a genuine sense of undivided attention.

I mentioned to him in this brief conversation that a governor’s delegation from North Dakota placed a sculptured bust of Lincoln in Frogner Park in Oslo 99 years ago, honoring President Lincoln for his signing the Homestead Act in 1862. His historic signature enabled so many Norwegians to emigrate and claim land when Dakota Territory opened for settlement in the 1880s.

“That’s inspiring to hear,” he said.

I shared with him my plans to take my nine California grandchildren to the 100th year anniversary of the N.D.’s Lincoln gift to Norway in 2014.

He responded with genuine interest.

I explained that Lincoln’s signature on the Homestead Act enabled my grandparents to immigrate to Minnesota and an uncle to homestead in N.D. Next year, my grandchildren will visit their Norwegian grandmother’s childhood home in Voss to learn about their heritage and a grandmother that they never knew.

“That’s inspiring to me,” he said, and shook my hand again.

Although our short conversation was very meaningful to me, what impressed me the most about this empathic playwright was that he talked with a student in the lobby, asked the student about his career ambitions, and took 5 – 6 minutes to give him personalized advice about preparing to be an actor. Although people were gathering around him, he never broke his concentration on a young student who was inspired by a true artist.

Not many professionals of his stature will go out of their way to offer heartfelt advice to a young stranger in the crowd.

In its 44th year, the UND Writers Conference has a rich history of attracting writers of national reputation and offering their discussions and conversations to public audiences in an open format and free to attendees.

Most previous conferences were video taped and now Special Collections in the UND Chester Fritz Library are digitizing the readings, the panels and speakers of previous years. When one considers how many world-class writers have presented at the Writers Conference, the literary treasures that are now becoming available through the digital library are truly impressive. (Check it out at

Maybe next year, I should bring one of my five granddaughters to the Writers Conference, as they are writers and teachers. None of them have been to North Dakota before to put their “feet on the ground” where a large part of their grandparent’s heritage happened.

Of course, I’ve countered public media about N.D. with personalized adventure stories of heritage from my youth, some vivid descriptions, and even some Super 8mm film from their grandparents wedding here in times past. Even though they are media savvy, Facebook doesn’t convey the heritage message that I hope for. Nor does YouTube.

I think I’m on to something, though, for me to get with the times and share my heritage in modern ways with my extended family. I’ll organize a pre-Writers-Conference “fly-in” when one of the writers in my family is delegated with family funds to attend the conference (with me hopefully) and “report” to the rest of the family on presentations from the conference. The attendee informs others in a family network about access to the digital library and benefits from “continuing education” in their careers. It could also be a neat way to foster an annual in-bound exchange between Norwegian cousins.

Each year, this “family heritage delegate” brings to Special Collections by arrangement the assembled papers or films collected over a year to a family shelf with digital stories of their ancestry. And I’ll add to it with a digitized family history that originated from my father being a country pastor for 45 years in one rural N.D. town where I grew up.

Now that inspires me.

Like with the brief personal conversation with Tony Kushner, inspiration is a gift that can be mutually exchanged in a few moments and lasts in memory for years to come.

This article originally appeared in the April 12, 2013 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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Larrie Wanberg

Larrie Wanberg, 1920–2021, contributed features to The Norwegian American for many years, drawing on eight decades of life experience highlighted by three career recognitions: as a researcher through a Fulbright Scholarship to Norway in 1957; as a health care provider in behavioral science through a 27-year military career and awarded upon retirement in 1981 the highest non-combat medal, the Legion of Merit medal; as an educator, through a 50-year career in college education, culminating in the 2010 Public Scholar award at the UND Center for Community Engagement. Wanberg passed away in May, 2021.