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Remembering Arne Brekke: indefatigable teacher, genealogist and tour guide

Posted on 7/13/2018

Originally published at UND Today:

Arne Brekke's zest for life was incessant.

Probably only surpassed by his zeal for people and how they came to be.

Arne was a friend, teacher, constant salesman and all around jolly ambassador for his adopted Red River Valley homeland, the University of North Dakota and his native Norway.

Most knew Arne as the indefatigable genealogist and travel guide who took enormous pride in telling anyone he just met about their ancestral roots. Like a fortune teller in reverse, Arne often only needed one's surname to conjure up troves of family histories dating back centuries.

He's the reason UND's Chester Fritz Library possesses one of the most complete collections anywhere of bygdebøker, compiled histories of genealogical, cultural and geographical information about local areas in Norway.

He's also the reasons that thousands of Americans have been able to see the world and visit the land of their ancestors in Scandinavia, thanks to his Brekke Tours & Travel - a full-service travel agency specializing in "heritage tours" to and from Norway.

Attention to detail

His piercing unspectacled baby blues, "tell-me-more" smile and accent-laden yet well-spoken English were patently Arne. His curiosity in everything and everyone was inherently genuine.

Regrettably, I met Arne in the twilight of his life. He was 85 then. He and I were working on an article for UND Discovery magazine, which I edited at the time. The theme of the issue centered on UND start-up businesses that had taken off and become local success stories. Arne's travel business certainly qualified.

An integral part of the article was Arne's life and career, which included many years as a languages professor. I'll never forget Arne's attention to detail and careful handwritten edits, tucked neatly in the margins of the text, as we worked on the project. It was as if he still had one foot in the classroom and was mentoring me, the student.

It never came across as condescending. It always made sense. It clearly was something important to him.

Telltale names

I also recall Arne's mild disappointment when he realized he wasn't going to be able to tell me much about my Norwegian roots (my maternal great-grandparents emigrated from Norway). Having noticed by blond hair, blues eye and fair complexion, he must have surmised that there was some strain of Norway in my DNA. But my surname derives from Scotland.

He probed a bit more, getting me to offer up my mother's maiden name - "Jorgenson," I said proudly.

"Ahh," Arne scoffed. "That's a patronym. I can't do anything with that." I instantly knew what he meant. It was a family name created from the first name of one of my forefathers or male ancestor, attached to the suffix, "son," as in "son of."

I remember feeling badly, at first, about my ancestors' choice of name. Non-patronymic Norwegian names are, in themselves, telltale, rife with information for a trained genealogist like Arne. Sensing my lament, he quickly reassured me that it happened to him all the time and that I wasn't alone - just look at any local phone book.

I hadn't seen Arne much since then - maybe a couple of times - but I thought of him often.

I was saddened to learn of his passing on Monday, June 25 at age 90.

Mike Swanson, Curt Hanson and Brian Baier, master archivists at the Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections on the fourth floor of the Chester Fritz Library, knew Arne much better than I. Over the years, they could count on weekly visits and phone calls from Arne, who, just as he did with my article about him, took a very hands-on approach to the care of his growing bygdebøker collection.

"Arne was immensely proud of the bygdebok collection bearing his name," Swanson said. "It was much more than a collection of books to him. He mentioned to me on several occasions that he considered it an important part of his legacy.

Arne believed strongly in the pursuit of knowledge and that learning about one's heritage can help people better understand themselves and their place in the world."

In honor of Arne, his life and his devotion to UND, the following is a slightly revised version of the article he and I worked on, which appeared in the Autumn 2012 edition of UND Discovery:

______

The Norway of Arne Brekke's youth is the one of postcards and travel guides.

It's the iconic representation of Scandinavia: lush green agrarian valleys lorded over by snow-capped peaks feeding ancient streams and rivers that flow into the North Sea. The crystal blue ocean, lacing through world-famous fjords, forms a mirrored reflection of Mother Nature's terrestrial masterpiece above.

This was the view from Brekke's homeland doorstep in the Flåm Parish valley, in the present day municipality of Aurland by the famous "Sogne Fjord," the world's longest and deepest.

For generations, Flåm Parish has been a fertile land for farmers and families that lived off the land. But once the secret of its beauty escaped and once the Norwegian government made access to the region easier, with new highways and railways to and from population centers such as Oslo, the rest of the world started coming en masse.

And the folks of Flåm have obliged visiting throngs by building hotels and offering tourist facilities to supplement their agricultural way of life. Brekke, now 85, a former University of North Dakota languages scholar and longtime Grand Forks businessman, and his family were no different.

Travel promotion is in Brekke's blood and for more than 80 years, he's made a living at it. He's the founder of Brekke Tours & Travel, located at 802 N. 43rd St., a successful Grand Forks-based business that spun off his UND scholarly work on languages and Scandinavian place names as well as the strong connections he's maintained in his native Norway.

Brekke didn't set out to be one of the world's most prolific and successful tour operators. The tracks along that path were laid, figuratively and literally, before he was born with the construction of Oslo-Bergen Railway across the high mountain range in western Norway. A construction road was built through the Flåm Valley to supply materials for the railroad, and when railway was finished in 1909, the road continued to be used by tourists by horse and buggy on their way to the famous fjord country.

During this period, the farmers of the region did much better economically if they could speak English to the tourists.

From 1920-1940, a 13-mile railway was constructed through the Flåm Valley. It wasn't long before railcars would be bringing as many as 650,000 tourists a year. Eventually, a new highway between Oslo and Bergen added a million more by car.

Cruise ships started packing the tight coastal inlets to the point that many more had to be turned away for lack of room, Brekke says.

Love of language

As much as being a good host and guide for these world visitors, young Brekke had a knack for languages. Today, he rattles off German, Swedish, French and Icelandic as languages he's able to communicate in effectively.

Brekke recalled, as a boy, during the Nazi occupation of Norway, being called "young professor" by German foot soldiers in need of his translation help.

The exposure to so many foreign tongues from tourists and others allowed him to practice and hone his gift, especially, when it came to English.

Brekke also speaks affectionately and appreciatively of an aunt who hailed from England and who would give him his first formal tutelage in the English language.

"That English helped me so much later in life," Brekke said.

With a solid background in English, Brekke headed abroad to pursue his educational goals in the heart of America and the epicenter of Scandinavian immigrant culture. He landed at Luther College, in Decorah, Iowa, in 1949.

Modest beginnings

College officials, so impressed with Brekke's proficiency in English, worked out an arrangement in which he would receive free room and board while studying at Luther College.

He would go on to receive his bachelor's degree in English from Luther College and a master's degree in English from the University of Colorado in 1952. He did graduate work at Cornell University and returned to Luther College in 1954 to become head of the Norwegian Department for three years.

It was during his stay at Luther College that Brekke organized his first escorted tour of Europe as a way fund a return visit to his homeland. Brekke said this arrangement was the "very modest" beginnings of what would become his travel business later in life.

Brekke got his PH.D., from the University of Chicago in 1962, becoming an expert in comparative Germanic and Indo-European languages. Again, he found himself to be sought after by others.

"I was able to interpret names that other people couldn't interpret," he said.

To finance his studies, Brekke maintained his role as tour operator, leading summer tours throughout Europe.

Brekke joined the Languages Department at UND in 1967, teaching primarily German and Norwegian classes.

That same year, Brekke connected with a Sons of Norway lodge in North Dakota and worked out a deal, in which he would organize charter flights to Norway for the lodges.

"That's when the numbers started becoming very large for us," said Brekke, describing a burgeoning travel business model.

His success in this venture directly led to the formation of his business: Brekke Tours & Travel - a full-service travel agency that specializes in "heritage tours" to and from Norway.

In a career that spans 56 years, Brekke estimates that he's chartered to Norway more than 200,000 tourists - many seeking their ancestral roots - and countless others to other points around the globe. He has also helped a large number of Norwegians to visit America.

Since 1956, Brekke says there's only been one year that he was unable to return to Norway, at least once, though, some years, he's made five or six trips.

In 1977, Brekke received the prestigious St. Olav Medal from Norway for his work to foster relationships between people of Norwegian descent and their ancestral homeland.

The Collection

Brekke's desire to foster these relationships extends beyond his travel agency to another of his great passions.

In 1980, Brekke began spearheading a project to greatly bolster the Norwegian genealogical research materials of the Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections within UND's Chester Fritz Library. At the time, Special Collections had only two sets of "bygdebøker," compiled histories of genealogical, cultural and geographical information about local areas.

So with the acumen of a scholar, Brekke began penning letters in his native Norwegian to representatives of Norway's nearly 450 municipalities. With each letter, he requested donations of bygdebøker.

"Within a year, we had secured about 200 more volumes, and we had about 600 in three years," Brekke said.

Brekke used his chartered trips to Norway to promote the bygdebok project, often garnering attention through Norwegian media that took part in the trips, and as a way to transport the sets back to the Grand Forks.

In recognition of his contributions, the Chester Fritz Library named the Bygdebok Collection in honor of Arne in 2010. And thanks to Arne and his daughter, Karen Hoelzer, the Arne G. Brekke Endowment was started to fund ongoing support for the Collection and its activities.

Brekke continues to do his part to secure copies of all known Norwegian bygdebøker. At last count, the Collection numbered about 1,340. (Update: As of July 10, 2018, the collection has grown to 1,770, and Swanson anticipates it will surpass 1,800 later this year.)

"We are getting closer to having a complete collection of all bygdebøker in one building," he says. "That is truly amazing."

Culture bridge

Brekke said the next goal, working with Special Collections archivists, is to make the entire list of bygdebøker available to the world on the Internet. Library staff have created a Website where people can find information about the individual publications in the Collection. The Website is used by people throughout the North American and also by researchers located in Norway.

Brekke still communicates nearly daily with friends and colleagues in Norway, and pounds out letters in Norwegian. Sometimes it's to request more bygdebøker, while other times, it's simply to keep in touch. Whatever the reason, Brekke explains the true value of the activity is that it allows him to keep up-to-date with the Norwegian language, which, like all living languages is ever-evolving

But it also allows him to keep doing what he does best - bridging cultures. Something he's been doing his entire life.

"It has been a great ride, so far, and it's been so much fun," he said.

Spoken like the consummate travel guide and happy host he always was.

-David Dodds


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