Arne Brekke: A lifetime of bridging cultures


David L. Dodds

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Arne Brekke: A lifetime of bridging cultures

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.

"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 a consummate tour operator!

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