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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
King Olav V of Norway visited Iowa as king in May 1968, but he was already familiar with the state.
He and his wife, Crown Princess Martha, had visited Decorah in May 1939 when he was the crown prince. The royal couple were on an extensive tour of the United States, and Decorah — with its deep Norwegian heritage — was their only Iowa stop.
Luther College conferred an honorary doctor of law degree on the prince. And the Hotel Winneshiek remodeled three rooms and two bathrooms on its first floor into a suite for the royal couple’s overnight stay.
When the Nazis invaded Norway in 1940, Princess Martha and her three children left the country and stayed in Washington, D.C., as guests of President Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, while the prince stayed in England. The family reunited in Norway after the war.
The prince became King Olav V in September 1957, following the death of his father, King Haakon VII.
More Decorah visits
Olav and Martha’s son, Crown Prince Harald, visited Decorah in October 1965, where he also received an honorary doctor of laws degree from Luther College.
The two-hour visit was packed with speeches and a tour of the three-story Norwegian American museum. The prince was tanned and fit following his win of a sailing championship the previous month. He also was a member of Norway’s Olympic sailing team in Tokyo.
In the 1968 visit, King Olav became the first reigning Norwegian monarch to visit Iowa during a whirlwind tour that also included stops in Texas, Los Angeles and New Orleans.
The king’s plane arrived at the Decorah airport on May 4, a cloudy, cool day that threatened rain. It was one of about 20 planes to land that day, making it one of the busiest days ever at the airport.
The king was greeted by hundreds of children, many in Norwegian dress, who lined the route from the airport to downtown Decorah and to the Luther College campus. Riding with him in his car from the airport were Iowa Gov. Harold Hughes and Norwegian Vice Consul B.B. Amundsen of Decorah.
The Luther College band played Sousa’s “Sabre and Spurs” and “Music for the King of Norway” as the entourage entered the campus.
Rachel Smedsrud, daughter of the Rev. Gordon Smedsrud, Luther’s campus minister, presented King Olav with a bouquet of flowers. After everyone sang the Norwegian national anthem and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Hughes welcomed the king to Iowa, saying “how joyful we are that you could be with us for this brief visit.”.
Luther College President E.D. Farwell gave the official welcome, reminding the king of Farwell’s visit to Norway the previous summer when he had invited the king to visit Decorah.
“I bring you greetings from everyone back home in Norway,” Olav told the crowd in front of the college administration building. He recalled his 1939 visit and said, “May the tradition of cooperation between our peoples remain strong and broad in the minds of us all.”
When the campus ceremonies were over, King Olav and his party toured the Norwegian American Museum where several crafts were demonstrated. After watching a children’s parade for a few minutes, the royal motorcade headed back to the airport.
King Olav returned to Decorah in 1975 as part of a 26-day tour of the United States during the Norwegian American Sesquicentennial, a celebration of modern Norwegian migration to America.
As honorary chairman of the board of the Norwegian American Museum, known by then as Vesterheim, the king dedicated the restored facility.
He then participated in laying the cornerstone for the new Center for Faith and Life at Luther College, donating a Norwegian hymnal for the cornerstone.
“There are few places in America which take better care of Norwegian heritage in America than this area,” he said.
Final visit 1987
King Olav was 84 when he returned to Decorah in 1987 for the fourth and last time at the invitation of the directors of Vesterheim.
Bad weather prevented him from flying in, so he arrived after a three-hour drive from Minneapolis.
“He came to renew old ties,” The Gazette reported.
Norwegian Ambassador Kjell Eliassen noted the United States had as many Norwegian Americans as there were people in Norway.
Three years later, the king met Vesterheim Board President Eugene Norby in Oslo in March 1990. In June, he suffered a stroke and then died of a heart attack in January 1991.
“Decorah residents and Vesterheim officials who knew the Norwegian king say he had a soft spot for this northeast Iowa town,” a Gazette reporter wrote. “They spoke glowingly of Olav … calling him a man without pretense.”
Olav’s successor, King Harald V and Queen Sonja, kept the Norway-Decorah connection alive with a visit in 1995.
They remarked that even though the area was known as “Little Switzerland,” it could just as well be “Little Norway.” The royal couple visited again in 2011 in honor of Luther College’s Sesquicentennial.