Norway Honors a Native Son

Descendants of John A. Widtsoe and Widtsoe biographer Alan Parrish (tallest man, back row) pose in front of Widtsoe statue

Norway Honors a Native Son

By Alan Parrish

Editor’s Note: On June 17, 2017, a bronze statue honoring John A. Widtsoe, American scientist, scholar and LDS apostle, will be unveiled in Frøya, Norway, Widtsoe's birthplace. A delegation of family members, church officials and Widtsoe Foundation leaders will be in attendance. This article contains the reflections of Alan Parrish, author of John A. Widtsoe, A Biography, who has been involved in the statue's development.

Artist Dennis Smith puts finishing touches on the clay mold statue he created of John A. Widtsoe. Dennis consulted with several experts on John’s life and studied all the photographs of him that are available before choosing this pose.

In the Easter season of 2015, the Historical Society of Frøya, Norway began discussions with Arne Dahlø, a member of the LDS Church and custodian of a memorial plaque marking the birthplace of John A. Widtsoe.  Guttorm Reppe represented the Historical Society in initial conversations with Arne.  Of them Arne wrote: “They were truly looking for a man who could serve as an academic hero, someone tied to Frøya” and rallied around a statue commemorating Widtsoe.

Froya Then and Now

Titran, a small fishing village on Frøya, was the ancestral home of John’s mother, Anna, and his own birthplace.  Fishing was the livelihood for Anna’s family and John often fondly called her the “fishermaiden.” After a few years in Titran, John’s father took the family to the mainland for increased opportunities as a schoolmaster.  His shocking death propelled the family to settle in Trondheim where they joined the LDS Church and eventually immigrated to America.  

The Widtsoe family did not have a presence on Frøya when John was born, a place he always called home; hence a delightful addition to this story is the strong presence of the Widtsoe family there today.  In 1991, Gustov Widtsoe (Witzo) became the founder and major owner of SalMar ASA, the third largest producer of salmon in the world. Gustov, a distant cousin of John, has developed heartfelt pride for his cousin and is well acquainted with his life and contributions.  He partnered with the Historical Society to ensure that their desires would be accomplished.

An Example for Youth

In Widtsoe, the Society saw a native son whose early life paralleled the characteristics the Society hoped to extol in future generations, especially as he matured into young adulthood. He had begun a splendid scientific career and by his mid-20s entered the ranks of marriage and family life.

During those impressionable years, a magazine devoted to young men – the Improvement Era --was getting established, and President Joseph F. Smith, who months earlier had performed John’s marriage to Leah Dunford, was editor-in-chief.

President Smith’s desire was to “Let the keynote … be the establishment in the youth of an individual testimony of the truth … and the development of the gifts within them.” John’s life had embodied those keynote wishes, and the desire to share them demanded his participation.

Reconciling Religion and Science

John had been one of those young men and knew well the terrain of their lives.  As a very young professor their concerns and aspirations were his target classroom audience. 

Article after article gave young men an increased vision of their world and its relevance in their lives. John wrote: “To the thinking boy, brought up in the fear of the Lord, comes a stage when there is a desperate effort to reconcile science and religion….  I have myself gone through the critical period when science and religion seemed to rise up against one another; and can sympathize keenly with every young person who is in the same condition.” His articles addressed the dilemmas he had seen in the confluence of science, truth, religion, and life.   John’s Era articles continued for almost 20 years while President Smith was alive, more than 60 articles in all.  

The Widtsoe Statue   

The Widtsoe statue will occupy the prime location in the Culture Park at the Culture School in Sistranda, the civic and cultural hub of Frøya.

Renowned American sculptor and artist Dennis Smith was chosen to create Widtsoe’s statue. He lives in Alpine, Utah on land that some of his Norwegian ancestors settled nearly the same time that John and his family were settling in Logan, Utah.  Dennis studied John’s life and carefully considered the desires of the Historical Society in creating the Widtsoe statue. 

Arne, Guttorm and others deliberated on how to best portray John to the youth of Frøya.  Working with Smith, they decided to cast him as a 23-year-old chemist and college professor in his laboratory attire standing in front of his students behind a work table covered with chemical paraphernalia, jars, flasks, etc.; holding to his eye a test tube into which he is peering as he describes new discoveries to young friends.

From his laboratories Widtsoe made many astonishing contributions that filled the breadbaskets of the world with superior food products.  To the Historical Society, John’s experiences could serve as a catalyst for the youth of Frøya to pursue dreams that might lead to a similar life of discovery, adventure, and joyful attainment. 

Photos top to bottom: Top: Widtsoe Family descendants gather in front of the Widtsoe statue. Middle: Another view of the Widtsoe statue. Bottom:This is the clay mold from which the final bronze statue of John Widtsoe will be made. It depicts Widtsoe as a 23 year-old professor in a classroom at the Utah Agricultural College (UAC) (now Utah State University) in Logan, Utah.