A few college friendships last a lifetime, like knowing Arne Brekke for over 60 years. As an editor for a college newspaper in 1949, I interviewed Arne when he arrived from Norway to attend college. Recently, when Arne was honored as “Benefactor of the Year,” I interviewed him again, with filmmaker son Lars, to document his journey from immigrant-student to professor-benefactor, and to listen to his philosophy of a life legacy.
Feature article on Arne Brekke written for Norwegian-American Weekly
I first met Arne Brekke when he arrived as a student from Norway in 1949 to attend Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. I was a student feature writer then with the college newspaper. After 60 years of friendship, I formally interviewed him again, when he received the “Major Benefactor” award from the North Dakota Library Association for his role in developing the “Arne G. Brekke Bygdebok Collection” at the Chester Fritz Library on the campus of the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.
For people with Norwegian heritage, the science of tracing one’s roots took a dramatic step forward with the creation of an artful new Website that makes accessible the collection in one place of 1250 volumes of Bygdebøker, which document family histories from the farms in Norway.
This research resource is one of the largest collections outside of Norway. Each of the 18 districts (fylker) is now shown at the Library’s Website with a virtual map of Norway. When you click on a district, that section appears on one’s computer screen and images of map pins appear that represent each of the municipalities (kommuner) within that district. Bygdebøker are published by municipalities, which total 433 in Norway.
Then, as you scroll over each map pin, a box appears that states how many Bygdebøker are printed and available for research of family histories from the farms of that area. The Website enables a viewer to narrow a search quickly for information on names of ancestors and the farm, which often is the origin of the family name.
Two valuable features of the Bygdebøker Website are that usage is designed to include people who are not native speakers, and that additional functionality is progressively added with links for information to other sites.
The Arne G Brekke Bygdebøker Collection started in 1980, when Arne was a language professor at UND and owner of Brekke Scandinavia, a travel agency. In collaboration with Colleen (Oihus) Warner from the Chester fritz Library, he began assembling Bygdebøker while on tours in Norway and returning them to the library.
“As new Bygdebøker are published yearly,” said Arne, “we contact each source to add to the collection, as our goal is to have every book in print in this collection.”
Arne is a “place-name” specialist, a literal walking encyclopedia of farm names and places in Norway. He interpreted the meaning of our family name, through research, that no one known to me – in Norway or US – had documented with this clarity before. “You need to know the relationships of Indo-European languages, the geography, and how to use the tools of research,” he explained to me, “to accurately interpret place-names. The secret is to learn a little each day to add knowledge throughout life.”
Arne believes that knowing languages prepare youth to become global citizens, and that young people need to carry heritage forward.
Between the two formal interviews 60 years apart, we have remained close friends, with regularly get-togethers and discussions as two class mates from college days.
His philosophy is a lesson in lifelong learning.
What started in past generations as a way to preserve farm and family histories, mainly used by an older generation for research, young people today can explore new ways of searching for stories of their heritage.