Eugene J. Nordby, M.D., distinguished orthopedic surgeon and prominent leader of the Norwegian-American community, died on January 18, 2024, at his home in Madison, Wisconsin. He was 105 years old. “The Vesterheim community is saddened by the news but grateful to have had his expertise and leadership for so many years,” Vesterheim President/CEO Chris Johnson said.
Dr. Eugene Nordby stands in a class all his own at Vesterheim. He served as Chair of the Board of Trustees for over 30 years beginning in 1964. He was elected board president in 1968 and served in that role until 1997 when he became president emeritus. He continued as Honorary Trustee of the museum from 1998 to his passing. His leadership and vision helped to build Vesterheim into the internationally acclaimed museum that it is today. Under Dr. Nordby’s tenure, many achievements were made and are still celebrated today – the renovation of the museum building in 1977, five visits from Norwegian Royalty, the establishment of the folk art program in 1967, achieving AAM accreditation in 1972, the expansion of the Open Air Division (now called Heritage Park), and many others.
Jon Hart, former Vesterheim Board Chair, said, “Dr. Gene Nordby was Vesterheim’s most celebrated centenarian – a governing leader of the museum for 30 years who strongly influenced all the progress and positive changes that followed his tenure as board chair! As a past chair, I relied on Gene as a friend and mentor, and he, along with his wife Olive, never lost their love for the museum. On my last visit with him in October 2023, at age 105 years, he still shared his dry wit and wisdom, and was extremely proud and excited about the Vesterheim Commons and the adjoining Heritage Park. He will be missed!”
Dr. Nordby, along with former museum director Dr. Marion Nelson, will forever be credited in elevating Vesterheim from a regional museum to an established international organization of the highest regard. John Christianson stated in a Vesterheim newsletter article in 1997 that “Eugene J. Nordby’s leadership has been absolutely crucial to the development of Vesterheim. Without him, the museum could not have become what it is today. Because of him and a handful of others, its future as a great American museum is assured.”
A life-long resident of Wisconsin, Dr. Nordby was born on April 30, 1918, in Abbotsford to parents Herman Preus Nordby and Lucile Korsrud Nordby. He had four Norwegian grandparents. His list of accomplishments is long – he was an Eagle Scout, high school valedictorian, cum laude graduate from Luther College, battlefield Army surgeon in Okinawa and Korea and Captain in the Medical Corps, and orthopedic surgeon.
He met his wife Olive Jensen (1915-2014) at Luther College and they married in 1941. During their marriage of more than seven decades, they were among the most active leaders of the Norwegian-American community, and Dr. Nordby supported and encouraged Olive’s artistic career as her talent grew and she became known as a unique and gifted artist.
Dr. Nordby was influential in the creation of the Norwegian American Genealogical Center & Naeseth Library in Madison, Wisconsin, which became an independent non-profit in 2007. In 1978 he founded the Madison Torske Klubben, a luncheon group of men who share Norwegian-American heritage and a sense of camaraderie. Long-time members of Madison’s Bethel Lutheran Church, the Nordbys also were members and leaders of many Norwegian heritage groups, including the Gudrid Reading Circle, Ydrasil Literary Society, and the Norwegian American Historical Association.
Dr. and Mrs. Nordby made more than 25 trips to Norway and developed friendships with several generations of the Norwegian royal family. In 1979, in recognition of Dr. Nordby’s promotion of closer ties between Norway and America, he was knighted by King Olav V Knight First Class of the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav.
The Nordbys were always generous contributors to the museum, and Olive donated all proceeds from the sale of her prints to Vesterheim and the Norwegian American Genealogy Center & Naeseth Library in Madison for the entirety of her artistic career.
Dr. Nordby’s son Jon added, “My parents worked together creating and promoting Vesterheim. I remember returning home from swim practice and meeting my dad in our garage, where he was constructing frames for my mom’s prints. He had a hand saw, miter box, frame clamps, squares, brads, wire, and paint all at the ready. He never used electric saws even though, by then, electricity was commonly available. As a surgeon he was mindful of protecting his hands, but he always supported Mom’s artistic contributions to Vesterheim. And although he often worked through dinner, she never failed to keep his dinner warm.”
Vesterheim recently announced a gift to the collection from Dr. Nordby along with his son Jon, and Jon’s wife Kim Nordby. The generous gift includes Olive Nordby’s woodblock and tool collection spanning her impressive artistic life and is a direct reflection of Olive’s life and legacy and the entire family’s devotion to Vesterheim.
Dr. Nordby’s son, Dr. Jon J. Nordby, and daughter-in-law, Kim Nordby suggest that memorials be made in his memory to Vesterheim or the Norwegian American Genealogical Center & Naeseth Library.