BY BEATRICE CAMP
Since 1960, the Vasa Order of America has selected a prominent U.S. citizen of Swedish descent as Swedish American of the Year. Honorees are invited for a 10-day visit to Sweden, where they are feted with lunch at the Foreign Office and a reception at Stockholm’s city hall. Although the U.S. embassy has no official role, events like these afford the chance to highlight the Swedish roots shared by millions of Americans.
Recipients of the Vasa Order award over the last six decades have included Nobel Prize laureate Glenn Seaborg and astronaut Buzz Aldrin. During my time at the embassy, the award went to a General Motors exec, the president of the University of Minnesota, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Rehnquist—and department store owner John Nordstrom.
As the embassy information officer, I had a role in some of the festivities, including arranging a press conference in 1993 for Chief Justice Rehnquist. That proved troublesome—the Swedish journalists let me know they were disappointed in the way the conservative jurist deflected their questions, including those on abortion.
The selection of John Nordstrom yielded better results, albeit with its own problem. While the annual program hosted by the Vasa Order and its Swedish counterparts covered 10 days, Nordstrom insisted he and his wife, Sally, had only three; it was imperative he get back to the U.S. to open two new stores. Although the organizers weren’t happy with what they saw as a stereotypically overbooked American who couldn’t spare the time to explore his heritage, they acquiesced to a condensed schedule.
Given the opportunity to accompany the honoree in 1992, I was fascinated to watch John Nordstrom’s interest in and knowledge of Sweden grow even in that limited amount of time. At the first night’s banquet, his brief, barebones toast noted that his grandfather had left Sweden by boat for the United States, where he started a shoe store. By the third night, Nordstrom was waxing longer, adding ever more details to the family tale. The Swedish hosts knew how to feed the flames, turning up documents such as the boat manifest showing his grandfather’s departure from Gothenburg for the United States.
And it turned out the department store owner had an interesting heritage story. Grandfather Johan Wilhelm Nordström immigrated to the United States in 1887 at the age of 16. Arriving in America with $5 to his name (as we heard at every toast), he worked his way across the continent. Taking jobs on railways, in mines, and at lumber camps and shipyards, he eventually arrived in Seattle, Washington, in 1896.
After reading about the discovery of gold in the Klondike, Johan Nordström headed to Alaska to make his fortune. Not finding it there, he returned to Seattle, where he and a friend opened a shoe store: Wallin & Nordstrom. From that first shoe store grew the retail empire we know today.
The 1992 Nordstrom visit coincided with an annual reenactment of a U.S. Civil War naval battle between the Union ironclad vessel the Monitor and the Confederate Merrimack. Staged on a lake in Sweden, the reenactment commemorates Swedish engineer and immigrant John Ericsson, who designed the Monitor in 1861. (In Washington, he is remembered with a statue in West Potomac Park.)
Watching this American historical event re-created with impressive fire and noise on a Swedish lake was memorable. It helps that the Swedes are masters of explosives—their history includes the inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel, as well as the Bofors guns that were used by both sides in World War II. The faux battle was a highlight of the Nordstroms’ visit to the land of their ancestors.
During his tacktal, or thank you toast, at the final banquet, John Nordstrom was so taken by this newly deepened knowledge of his Swedish heritage that he announced a plan to add two dots over the “o” in “strom” at the new stores, to read “Nordström.” I checked the store fronts for several years, hoping to find the accent mark. It never happened.
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