Everybody loves Arne

Steward of UND Norwegian history collection celebrates 90th birthday with milestone endowment gift

Arne Brekke

UND Alumni Association & Foundation CEO DeAnna Carlson Zink (middle) greets Arne Brekke (left) and his daughter Karla Marchell (right) at Arne’s 90th birthday celebration at the Chester Fritz Library. Brekke is the namesake of UND’s Arne G. Brekke Bygdebok Collection, one of the largest accumulations of Norwegian history and genealogy books in the world. Photo by Kaylee Cusack/UND Today

The East Asian Room of the Chester Fritz Library turned Scandinavian on Oct. 21, strewn with Norwegian flags, red and blue balloons, and a traditional food spread punctuated with a towering kranskake – the characteristic dessert of Norwegian special occasions.

But Arne Brekke had trouble finishing up his plate of homeland goodies. Too many well-wishers were flooding his table.

“Ninety years old now!” one guest exclaimed, hugging Brekke in his seat.

“Ninety years young!” he teased back, with an enormous laugh more befitting the age of nine.

This was a celebration of the former UND languages professor’s ninetieth birthday – the namesake behind UND’s Arne G. Brekke Bygdebok Collection, one of the largest accumulations of Norwegian history and genealogy books in the world.

But there was more to celebrate than years gone by.

“This party was an enormous surprise. I did not know my two daughters were coming until they showed up here. It’s been a combination of incredible events.” Brekke said. “And the UND Alumni Association & Foundation let me know that the endowment set up for this collection had passed half a million dollars.”

To mark the occasion, Brekke’s daughter, Karen Hoelzer – who helped Brekke establish the Arne G. Brekke Endowment in 2010 – made a generous $25,000 gift to the endowment to help hit $500,000. Earlier this year, another of Brekke’s daughters, Karla Marchell, teamed up with ExxonMobil to offer a gift of $30,000.

The endowment was set up in connection with another from Gloria Gransberg, a former student of Brekke’s, to support Norwegian heritage initiatives in the library.

“I think it’s something that he’s been hoping for and was wanting to see done,” Hoezler said of the endowment milestone. “He wanted to know that the collection would be taken care of for years to come, and this gave him a little peace of mind.”

Arne Brekke's 90th b-day cake

A birthday party for former UND languages professor Arne Brekke wouldn’t be complete without kranskake and a Norwegian flag cake. Photo by Kaylee Cusack/UND Today

Contagious excitement

Brekke’s partnership with UND Special Collections started in 1980. With native roots in Norway and endless visits to his home country stamped in his passport, Arne used his contacts to personally find and gather hundreds of Norwegian bygdebøker for the Archives – and continues to do so to this day.

Bygdebøker, a word UND Archivist Mike Swanson can pronounce better than just about anyone on campus, lay out the detailed local histories of individual Norwegian farms and the people who have settled there. They are an essential resource for those tracing their Norwegian ancestry.

Although UND would love to boast a complete set, Swanson said that goal is a moving target.

“These types of books continue to be published in Norway, sometimes updating older volumes,” he explained. “There are also some areas of Norway where they haven’t done a local history book of this type before, so there are completely new books for certain areas coming out. So the collection will continue to grow.”

And grow it has. Recently, the collection hit an all-time high of 1,700 bygdebøker – and Arne was ecstatic.

“He usually calls a couple times a week,” Swanson said with a grin. “He wants to really stay engaged with new developments with the collection.”

“When a new shipment comes in and we get a new set of books, he inevitably comes to look at it,” said Curt Hanson, Head of the Department of Special Collections. “The excitement, the intellectual curiosity, the drive that he has is just contagious.”

Arne Brekke

Since 1980, Arne Brekke has led the effort to collect more than 1,700 bygdebøker for UND Special Collections. These books are Norwegian compilations of local genealogical, cultural and geographical information. Photo by Jackie Lorentz/UND Today

Culture of the community

Brekke says that, no matter where he goes in Grand Forks, people tell him they have a Norwegian connection. Just the other day, he bought a smartphone from someone who shared his last name.

“That’s why it’s so appropriate for Grand Forks to have this collection here, in the midst of one of the densest Norwegian populations in the world,” Brekke said.

“Census data shows about 80 percent of people in this area have some Norwegian heritage,” said UND Dean of Libraries and Information Resources Stephanie Walker. “Our mandate, as the University Archives, includes gathering and preserving the histories of the people and places around Grand Forks, North Dakota and the Great Plains, and this is a huge part of it.”

It isn’t just the local population that the Arne G. Brekke Bygdebok Collection serves. Every week, Special Collections receives several requests for bygdebok information from all over the world, and it’s become even easier with a searchable online database.

“We even helped an Ole Olson from Hawaii to connect back to Norway!” Brekke beamed. “We have never failed in any attempt to help. And that’s why this collection is becoming famous.”

Histories unearthed, families found, nationalities bridged – all from a room of large, old, hard-covered volumes, and the initiative of one man.

“I’m incredibly proud,” Hoelzer said. “Some folks have been able to go to Norway and see the farms they descended from, and actually meet people that are still living on those farms. That’s incredibly special. I know that for some, it’s brought tears.”

“There are people in that room right now,” Hanson said, pointing to three bygdebok browsers, “who probably would not be here – would not be researching, would not be getting in touch with their family history and being a lifelong learners in this way – without Arne Brekke.”