Kvamme, Olaf (1923-2013)

  • By Mary T. Henry
  • Posted 8/04/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9095

Olaf Kvamme was a Seattle educator, administrator, historian, and a leader in the city's Norwegian community.

Early Years

Kvamme was born in Bergen, Norway, on June 21, 1923. Two months later he was brought to the United States by his parents, Eli Alvhilda and Johannes Kvamme.  They left Bergen by ship to Newcastle, England, traveled by train to Southhampton and by ship from there to Quebec City. A transcontinental rail trip brought them through Canada and on to Tacoma, Washington, where they were welcomed by a relative who was an earlier immigrant.

His earliest years were spent in Tacoma in the Hill Top neighborhood where he attended public school through the third grade. One by one his uncles from Norway came and boarded with them. 

It was difficult for his father, a carpenter, to find work during the Depression, although he did work on Public Works Administration construction projects. In the 1930s the family moved to Fife, where the elder Kvamme built homes and maintained a small farm. Olaf attended the Fife public schools through high school and worked on Japanese American farms in the area. Many of his classmates were Japanese and he was disheartened by their involuntary evacuation to internment camps during the war.  While they were interned in Puyallup, before their move to Minadoka, he would ride his bicycle to the fairgrounds to visit some of them.
As the oldest of all of his siblings and his cousins, his entrance into college was by happenstance because he had had no family encouragement to attend. That summer, while at the local grocery store, he heard from the superintendent of schools that six of his classmates were enrolling at Pacific Lutheran University. This news prompted him to think about college. He enrolled, lived off campus and completed his freshman and sophomore years before being inducted into the army.
Speaking Japanese in the Army
Although he never saw combat, the next four years were filled with adventure as he moved through basic training, on to specialized education in Japanese language and to a year in Japan. Neither he nor his parents were citizens of the United States, all having been born in Norway.  He recalls being placed in a truck and taken to San Luis Obispo to be sworn in as a United States citizen. He was offered placement in the Norwegian American ski unit, but rejected it. 

He scored quite high on examinations and so was sent to the University of Chicago and later to the University of Michigan for specialized training in Japanese.  When the war was over in 1945, he chose to spend one year in Japan as an interrogator and a proofreader of the daily intelligence summary issued from General Douglas MacArthur's office. 

Those military years were some of the  highlights of his life. He retired from the army reserves as Lt. Colonel in 1974. For years he maintained membership in the Japanese Military Intelligence group in Seattle where he was a minority member.  One of his greatest pleasures is to watch a group of Japanese girls giggle as he speaks Japanese to them on the streets of Europe or Seattle.
Career in Education
After his education in the army, he received a BA degree from Pacific Lutheran University and went on to earn a teaching certificate from the University of Washington. He started his teaching career in the high school in Kapowsin, Washington, in 1948 and in 1949 began an impressive career in the Seattle Public Schools as teacher, principal, and administrator in the central office. He often stated that he had the distinction of serving under eight different superintendents:   Fleming, Campbell, Bottomly, Moberly, Troxel, Steele, Nelson, and Kendrick.

Starting out as teacher at Colman School in 1949, he went on to be vice principal at High Point Point (1953-56), principal at Colman (1956-1958), and principal at Madrona (1958-61).  His special talents in dealing with groups, his integrity, his sensitive approach to community issues, and his administrative skills prompted his appointment to numerous positions serving the central office:  Special Program Coordinator (1961-1962); Elementary Schools Coordinator (1962-1968); Project Director Southeast Education Center (1968-1969), Project Director, Administrative Reorganization Study, 1969-1970), Director Special Programs (1970-1973), Director Intergovernmental Relations and Grants Management (1974-1975), Director Community and Governmental Relations (1975-1984), Assistant Superintendent, General Administration and District Relations (1984-1986), Director Government and Board Relations (1986-1987).
During the tense years of desegregation discussions, Olaf Kvamme was a familiar presence in community meetings and served on  various committees dealing with the problem, including the No Name Committee, which played a significant role in desegregating the schools.  It was composed of lawyers, business leaders, civic leaders, and university professors.  Kvamme at the time was director of Intergovernmental Relations for the school district. 

In 1983 the city hosted a Scandinavia Today program and Mr. Kvamme was designated the liaison between the city and the school district.  In this capacity he promoted the program in a number of schools and was the official escort of Scandinavian representatives to the schools.
Upon his retirement in 1987, school board member Michael Preston noted that "besides being a storehouse of historical facts he can pull out of a photographic memory, he is one of the major thinkers in the district who could look at issues from all sides and give the board all the alternatives." 

Norwegian Community Activities
After retiring in 1987 from Seattle Public Schools and because of his Norwegian background Kvamme plunged into all things Norwegian in the community, giving untold service and energy to the Nordic Heritage Museum and the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association.  His vision led to the creation of lasting projects that benefit both the Norwegian community and the city in general.
In 1988, Olaf Kvamme took over as  chair of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, one of the 21 Sister City Associations sponsored by the City of Seattle.  He retained the position for more than 20 years and was the liason between Seattle and Bergen.
In 1990, after a visit to Norway and examining a menu of a Yule Fest at the SAS Hotel, he inaugurated an annual Yule Fest (a Christmas smorgasboard) at the Nordic Heritage Museum, sponsored by the association. 
As chair of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association Kvamme oversaw the student exchange and the teacher exchange between Seattle and Bergen. Each year for more than 20 years one Seattle high school student spent several months in Bergen and a Bergen high school  student has spent several months in Seattle. In 1994 there began a teacher exchange where one teacher from a Seattle school spends three months in Bergen and a Bergen teacher comes to a Seattle school for three months.
In 2001 he initiated the annual Seven Hills Walk in Seattle to replicate the Seven Mountains walk in Bergen. Along the walk over the seven hills from Queen Anne to Beacon Hill, historical comments are provided and up to 25 people have participated in each of the walks.
In 2002, Olaf Kvamme, after having served on the Edvard Grieg Centennial Committee, devised with musical consultants an annual Grieg concert by young piano students, which was presented at the Nordic Heritage Museum under the auspices of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association.
Nordic Heritage Museum
Kvamme served on the board of the Nordic Heritage Museum and was president from 1990 to 1995.  In addition, he was an active proponent of the preservation of Scandinavian heritage, collecting publications and ephemera to augment the museum's collections. His raspaballer dinners (Norwegian potato balls) were offered at the annual auctions for the museum and commanded up to $600.
He and Lisa Bergman, music director, initiated the Mostly Nordic Concerts at the museum in 1995.  These concert series feature music from the five Nordic countries along with a smorgasbord for ticket holders.
As a member of the Territory of Washington Sesquicentennial Commission, Kvamme researched  the churches in the state that worshiped in  Scandinavian language prior to statehood.  This research culminated in an exhibit at the Nordic Heritage Museum.  He established an impressive archive at the museum from this research.  Another interesting exhibit for the museum, which he and Dan Kaylor produced, was on the Norwegian staple lutefisk (a traditional dish made from white fish and soda lye).
It was he who initiated and formed a committee to produce the Nordic Heritage Museum Historical Journal.  The journal has produced scholarly articles and topics related to the history of Scandinavians and has been published twice a year since 2005.
Community Service
Olaf Kvamme has served as president of the board of Bay View Manor retirement home and on the board of the Atlantic Street Center (a youth counseling and service center). He is a member of the University of Washington Scandinavian Studies Department Advisory Committee and the University of Washington's Bergen Professor Exchange Program. 

In the early days of his career in education he was elected president of the Grade Teachers Association and served on the national board of the Family Service Association of America.
Honors and Accolades
In recognition of his outstanding service to the Seattle Public Schools Kvamme was the King County Outstanding Public Employee of the Year  as named by the Municipal League of Seattle and King County in 1981.
The Seattle Business Committee for Excellence in Education in 1989 contributed an award to a school administrator who had made a significant contribution to the quality of education in Seattle Public Schools. They named it the Olaf Kvamme Award because he had exemplified the qualities of compassion, dedication, integrity, and loyalty to all those he served.
Kvamme's service to the Norwegian community was noted by many organizations, the highest honor bestowed on him being the St. Olav medal from King Harald of Norway in 1996.

In  2003, he received the Spirit of Liberty Award by the Ethnic Heritage Council, an award presented each July 4th at the Seattle Center. Speakers on that day included Mayor Greg Nickels, Senator Maria Cantwell, and  Congressman Jim McDermott. This award recognizes an immigrant who has made a distinct contribution to the community.
He was the recipient of the 2004 Norwegian American Chamber of Commerce Award.
Olaf Kvamme married Aileen Trostad (1925-1982) in August 1947. He died in September 2013, survived by his four children, six grandchildren, and eight great grandchildren.

Sources: Angelos, Constantine.  "Lobbyist for Schools to Retire this Month," The Seattle Times, June 18, 1987; "Kvamme First Winner of 'his' Award," Ibid., May 25, 1988; 
Municipal News (Municipal League of Seattle and King County), June 1991;  "NHM President Decorated by King Harald," Nordic News (Newsletter of the NHM), Spring 1996; "Norwegian American Chamber of Commerce Honors Olaf Kvamme," Western Viking, January 9, 2004; "Olaf Kvamme Receives St. Olaf Medal," Western Viking, April 19, 1996; "Olaf Kvamme Receives 2003 Spirit of Liberty Award," Nordic News, Summer 2003; Ann LaGrelius Siqueland, Without a Court Order; The Desegregation of Seattle's Schools  (Seattle: Madrona Publishers, 1981).
Note: This essay was corrected and updated on October 3, 2013.

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