Retracing the Steps of Norwegian Friendship

In 1939, the crown prince and princess of Norway, Olav and Martha, spent a day at the Hillcrest Academy campus, with a special program held in the old school gymnasium. Also in 1939, the church began to print church reports in both Norwegian and English at the annual meetings.

Oftentimes, female Hillcrest students who came from Norwegian-American families in Brooklyn would meet and marry young men from Norwegian-American families in Minnesota and South Dakota. This happened when Mabel Benson of Brooklyn met Harland Helland of Fergus Falls in the early 1950s.

But even with an interest in things that were Norwegian, there was a vast ocean that separated a small high school in Fergus Falls from a Christian skole (school) in Bergen, Norway. That distance was diminished when Asbjorn Ystebo journeyed to America in 1988. Mr. Ystebo, one of the Danielsen teachers, and Arne Mikal Landro, another teacher, were looking for a school where they could send some of their students to the United States for a year.

In that same season, autumn of 1988, Hillcrest faced an enrollment crisis. Longtime principal Bill Colbeck was nearly worn out by his concerns, and by the never-ending workload he faced in trying to keep a small private high school solvent. Fundraising has its own headaches. Mr. Colbeck had to pay particular attention to public relations and finding donors, while coaching and serving as the principal and superintendent simultaneously. All of this while raising a family of two daughters and one son. Colbeck’s personal characteristics helped him succeed in so many roles. A fascinating individual, he had a real ability to connect with people, and he was so lively that he could fill a room with his presence. As an ordained pastor, his care extended to faculty and student alike. But the combined responsibilities were wearing him down.

However, 1989 proved to be a year of hope for fifty-three-year-old William Colbeck and for Hillcrest Academy. Colbeck relearned his lessons of faith regarding God’s provision for the school. On an October morning, in his office on the second floor in the northeast corner of the red-brick academy, Bill Colbeck was ready for his morning prayers and supplications. His secretary, Belinda Sogn (pronounced “song”), of Norwegian extraction from nearby Barnesville, was in her anteroom office just outside Colbeck’s office door. Miss Sogn had given Bill a prayer bench to ease his aching knees. The weary principal kneeled and prayed very simply, having no other place to go: “Lord, this is your school, we put our trust in You.”

Hillcrest was “in dire need of students,” Colbeck recalled in an interview, for “enrollment had dropped to 108,” and the academy was “stuggling with just grades ten through twelve.” Just as he “was getting up from praying,” Colbeck recalled, Belinda Sogn knocked on his door and said: “There are two gentlemen here from Norway who would like to visit with you.” Principal Colbeck did not know that anyone was planning to arrive at his door that day, having received no prior communication from the two visitors. “I believe they were God-sent,” testified Colbeck. The two men, Mr. Asbjorn Ystebo and Mr. Arne Landro, had come from the Danielsen Christian School in Bergen. They were looking for a school where they could send some of their students to the United States for a year.

Ysteboe and Landro were searching for an American school that could meet three “pertinent criteria”—it had to be a “Christian Skole (School); the “setting had to be quiet;” and it had to be “rich in Norwegian influence.” It also had to be a boarding school that could host a substantial number of students, so that they would not be boarding in private homes. The two Norwegians told Colbeck that as soon as they walked into the hallway on the first floor that day and saw the photographs of the graduates on the wall with so many Norwegian names, “it looked like it was a match.”

The quiet nature of the small city of Fergus Falls was preferable to the bustle of a large city, even though its airline connection was not immediately convenient. To these residents of big-city Bergen, population 250,000, Fergus Falls looked like a “very safe place”—they felt that parents in Norway would not be “afraid of sending their children to Hillcrest.”

Hillcrest’s “strong Christian emphasis” and the fact that the school’s “leaders and pastors were mature Christians” was a vital aspect for making a match with the Danielsen School. Both schools shared roots in the pietistic movement of the Hauge Synod, stressing a personal relationship with Christ, a devotion to reading the Bible, and an emphasis on living a quiet, and godly life. With their shared heritage, the two schools worked on an agreement to arrange for the education of Norwegian students at Hillcrest Academy, but the number of exchange students was at first unclear.

Ysteboe asked, “Would you take two students?”

Colbeck said, “Yes, we would take two.”

“Would you take five?” inquired Ysteboe.

Colbeck responded, “Yes, we would take five.”

Ysteboe: “Would you take eight?”

Colbeck: “Yes.”

Ysteboe: “Would you take twenty?” At that point, the magnitude of the answer to his morning prayer became apparent to Bill Colbeck, and he was glad to raise a silent prayer of the saved and the thankful.

The total number of students journeying from Bergen, Norway, to Hillcrest Academy started at twenty and eventually rose to thirty students per year. The arrival of the Norwegians brought new vitality to Hillcrest, and with the students came a needed infusion of cash. The national government of Norway provided funding for the student exchange.

There were some growing pains and adjustments to be made through the years. At first, the Norwegian students stayed in Minnesota over the two-week Christmas break, and Bill Colbeck had to scramble “to find homes for all the Norwegians” where they could have more of a home-like experience than they could in the dormitories. This practice would later change so that the young people would go back to Norway for the Christmas break.

To help in the transition process, Danielsen teacher Martin Rud and his family came to Fergus Falls, so that he could coordinate the Hillcrest classes with the Danielsen curriculum. With this cooperation, the Norwegian government could approve the exchange program for funding, and the year in Minnesota would count for full credit in the Norwegian educational system. This program had an advantage over other programs such as AFS (American Field Service) and other experiences, because the foreign student would get credit for the year for all classes, provided that he or she earned a passing grade. This way, it would not represent the loss of a school year overseas. In succeeding years, a Danielsen schoolteacher would often arrive with the Norwegian students at the beginning of the year to further refine the curriculum and to be a reassurance and support for the young travelers.

In the tenth year of the Hillcrest-Danielsen exchange program, in 1999, a number of milestones had been reached. Bill Colbeck had retired in 1998, and leadership for the school passed to the new principal, Steve Brue. In that year, twenty-eight Norwegian students were in residence at Hillcrest Academy. In an almost-miraculous turnaround, the enrollment at Hillcrest reached an all-time record high of 187 students for the 1998 school year.

One of the Norwegian students who made Fergus Falls his “home away from home” in 1998, a year of high enrollment, was Morten Borgen, a Bergen resident. Borgen noted that Hillcrest was smaller than its Norwegian partner, at just one-third the size. He also realized the differences in the size of the community, and that it took some time to get accustomed to the smaller-city pace. 

The Christian emphasis was for all students, but Hillcrest also brought new opportunities in sports for the visitors from the old country. Some played at the varsity level, notably in soccer, while others were on the “B” or “C” or intramural squads. Two Norwegian girls, Hanne Dale and Line Fremstad, tried out for the Fergus Falls High School swim team as part of a cooperative agreement between the public school and the private Hillcrest Academy. The talented pair helped the Otter girl swimmers qualify for the state swim meet for the first time ever as a team, resulting in a fifth-place finish at state. In football, the crossover kicking skills of Hallvard Hollevik delivered benefits to Hillcrest’s nine-man football squad in 1998. Hollevik, who had played plenty of soccer but who had “never played football before” that year, kicked a 27-yard field goal in overtime of a state quarterfinal game against the perennially powerful Verndale Pirates. Hollevik thus propelled the Comets into the semi-finals in the Metrodome in Minneapolis (on their way to an eventual second-place finish in the championship matchup). The Hillcrest Comet basketball program also benefited from the Norwegian connection. In 1991, the Danielsen School chose Frode Loftenes as one of the exchange students. Frode, who stood six-foot-eight, had participated in the club basketball program in Bergen.

Both schools have benefitted from the exchange program, for students at the Danielsen School compete to get a place on the plane to America for a year spent at Hillcrest Academy. Typically, over fifty students apply for the thirty places allotted to the Norwegian school, with the list chosen in consultation between the two administrations. As the world seemingly grows smaller due to international internet links and instantaneous communication systems, modern-day students find a greater need to be able to understand and make connections with young people from other countries and cultures. Hillcrest Academy has a long history of hosting students from South America, Asia, and Europe, and the collaboration and connections with the Norwegian scholars from the Danielsen School transformed and solidified a foundational Christian education at both schools.

The providential answer to a morning prayer in 1988 brought changes to Bill Colbeck, to Hillcrest Academy, and to over seven hundred young people from Bergen, Norway, who have participated in the exchange program. An educational bridge linked Fergus Falls and Bergen for over twenty-five years of continuing friendship, faith, fellowship and fun.

Steve HoffbeckComment