The Rise and Fall of Wyoming’s Little Norway

University of Wyoming created a "Little Norway" in Laramie 35 years ago, by offering scholarships to some of the best young skiers in the world. (Happy Nasjonaldagen!)

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Life could get pretty lonely for Dag Westgaard. Not that the 28-year old student at the University of Wyoming doesn’t have friends. He has plenty. But he’s the only person attending UW from his native Norway. That may not seem too surprising: Westgaard’s home town of Oslo is at the other end of a 12-hour plane trip. But in contrast with the early 1990s, when nearly 90 Norwegian students and spouses were living in Laramie, having only one Norwegian left is a shock to many people around town. Considering that Westgaard’s parents, Ulf and Hoanh, met as international students while attending UW, their son’s being the last Norwegian left seems rather sad.

Westgaard was born in Laramie, but he didn’t choose UW out of nostalgia. Like any child of alumni, he gets a discounted tuition rate. “I decided enroll at UW because it was the best deal I could get for my money,” he says. “It would have been more expensive in Norway to get a second degree, so I thought to myself that I might as well experience something totally new.”

For over two decades, from the early 1970s to the mid 1990s, an attractive financial arrangement between Norway and UW brought many students to UW. That and the awesome skiing.

Norwegians take to skiing like bears take to the woods. (It doesn’t hurt that they’re standing on skis from the time they learn to walk.) Some of these kids grow up to be world-class skiers competing in cross county, downhill, slalom, giant slalom, and ski jumping sports. Many young people from Norway use skiing for a college ski team as the opportunity to attend school in the U.S., and UW was once one of several universities in the Rocky Mountain West to benefit from Norwegian prowess in the powder. 

Wyomingite Quentin Skinner first met Norwegians skiers when he was on the UW ski team, 1958 to 1962. He watched several of these athletes compete and win. Now 70, Skinner was working on his Ph.D. at UW and went on to become a professor and range scientist. He also coached the UW ski team from 1971 to 1980. Skinner picked up where his old coach had left off, recruiting Norwegians for the team. In 1972 Skinner’s team started winning championships. In that year Staale Engen was the NCAA’s top cross country skier; Steinar Hybertsen won NCAA championships the next three years. These two men, along with a handful of other Norwegian skiers, formed what Skinner called “the core group.” He said, “These skiers were very loyal. They loved Wyoming and the university.”

Not only were they loyal, they were successful. “The Norwegians that I had – 22 to 25 men — and the Americans, won championships in all the different events and placed second five times and third twice in the NCAA,” Skinner said. “They made a name for Wyoming and skiing, along with Americans.”

Courtesy Quentin Skinner
Staale Engen (left) won the national title in cross country skiiing in 1972 and was a mainstay of the UW team and its recruiting for years.

One of the more successful Norwegian skiers was Stig Hallingbye, who specialized in ski jumping. His ski buddies recruited him to attend UW when Hallingbye was right out of high school and had performed his one year of mandatory military service. “It was a big deal, a real dream come true,” Hallingbye said. “My heroes had said glorious things about coming to the U.S., where I could study business and get a degree before going back to Norway.” Hallingbye said he was a “pretty good skier” when he came to Laramie in 1974, joining four other Norwegians on the Wyoming team. “I didn’t know very much English but I felt extremely welcome.” He said the Norwegians hung out together and “spoke too much Norwegian.” That might have been counterproductive for studying in a foreign language for a college degree, but fortunately Hallingbye soon met his future wife Beth, who helped him with his English skills.

Skinner said Hallingbye and a few others stepped up his recruiting program. “They went back to Norway each summer and recruited other skiers to come here,” Skinner said. He wanted them to select teammates they could get along with. “They had to ski with them and live with them. Our recruiting budget was about enough to buy stamps. The kids really did the recruiting.” Hallingbye added that he and the others were told how much could be spent on scholarships and were trusted to extend it wisely.

Through the years, UW’s reputation attracted competitive skiers to Laramie and others who came simply to earn a college degree. These students loved to ski in the mountains around Laramie, too, and had a good time doing it. Norwegians have the well-deserved reputation for excelling in winter sports. They also have a well-earned reputation for having fun. Perhaps it was inevitable that this combination would lead to the “Norwegian Olympics.”

Even Brande
The Norwegian Olympics became an annual event at University of Wyoming in the 1980s, “the glory days of its Norwegian influx.”

It was just a matter of time before events like “naked ski jumping” fueled by Aquavit and other elements of Norwegian culture attracted the American students to join the contest. Kevin McKinney, now a senior director of UW athletics, fondly remembers those annual events in the Snowy Range mountains outside of Laramie. “The Norwegians have such a unique culture, they are such great competitors, and they knew how to have a grand time at the Norwegian Olympics. It was a blast.”

Even Brande is one of the Norwegians who chose to attend UW for education first, skiing second. He was a regular reveler in the Norwegian Olympics, which he said attracted Norwegians not just from UW, but from other schools around the West. Brande came to Laramie from Oslo in 1988, during the glory days of the Norwegian influx. “I always wanted to go to college in the U.S., and Wyoming was the only place I could find that was as cold and desolated as Norway,” he quipped. “No, seriously, I did want to go to school somewhere where they had four seasons. A friend of my family told me great things about Wyoming, so that ended up being one of about five universities I applied to. UW seemed like the best deal, and they let me transfer one full year of credits, so that sealed the deal.”

Even Brande
Lighting the torch at the Norwegian Olympics in Laramie, prelude to “naked ski jumping” and other events.

Brande earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1991 and an MBA in 1993. He planned to return to Norway after graduation, but like Hallingbye, he met the woman he’d marry while at school in Laramie. “Destiny had other plans,” he said.

Today Brande is an entrepreneur who operates an information technology company in Laramie. He and his wife Anne have opened their home to many Norwegian students over the years, hosting Norwegian Independence Day parties, for example. He explained it was the “network of other Norwegians here that helped ease my transition and helped me integrate into American society when I first came. That made a world of difference for me. I want to give that same experience back to other new Norwegian students,” he explained.

“Of course,” Brande added, “now it has been at least 15 years since we had a serious influx of new students.”

Which brings us to lonely Dag Westgaard and the now former Division 1 ski team at the University of Wyoming.

Stig Hallingbye, living in Cheyenne, explained the slow dismantling of the UW team. First, downhill skiing was eliminated, he said, because the course where they competed was too dangerous – fast and narrow. He coached the team in 1980. The next year, ski jumping was cut. The reason, he explained, was that there was no local place where UW skiers could practice. They had to travel to sites in Colorado to get their jumps in, which became too costly. Then in 1992, the board of trustees voted to cut the team entirely.

Even Brande
An avid crowd gathered for the Norwegian Olympics — the festivities drew UW spectators as well as Norwegian fans and competitors from other schools across the West.

Hallingbye recalls a passionate letter-writing campaign waged in part by skiers and other Norwegian alumni, bolstered by others who supported the sport. By this time Hallingbye was a banking executive in Laramie. Fighting the University against the team’s elimination was “a touchy thing to deal with for me in the business community, when the University had been so good to me.” But Hallingbye thought it didn’t make good financial sense to say goodbye to a steady stream of students from Norway, most of whom were at UW on full-ride scholarships, who had money, and who made up the second largest group of foreign students on campus. “I didn’t think the math was very good.”

Kevin McKinney explained that there were also gender equity issues involved in cutting the ski team. In order to keep the ski team, which consisted mostly of male athletes, another women’s team providing an equal number of scholarships would have had to be created. “The investment-to-spectator ratio was smaller than many other sports,” McKinney explained. “The success it enjoyed, however, made it a very difficult decision, far reaching and painful.”

When the ski team was cut, UW lost the following of Norwegians, Quentin Skinner said. UW does have men’s and women’s skiing now, and both teams often do quite well. But it is an intramural club sport, not a NCAA Division 1 squad. Dag Westgaard isn’t a member of the club, although he enjoys skiing the same slopes that his Norwegian predecessors once did. But the stories of the grand days of the NCAA championships and the Norwegian Olympics are just so much history to him. “I would say that there is slim to no Norwegian culture at UW anymore. I know only of myself as a Norwegian student. Even Brande is the only other Norwegian I know of here in Laramie, and I was introduced to him by coincidence.”

That’s a far cry from the days of Stig Hallingbye and Ulf Westgaard taking a “hilarious” English class for international students in which they were expected to debate issues in the foreign English language. Most of the students from that era have returned to Norway, though many sent their own children to UW. But without the ski team, the financial arrangement Norway had with UW has melted away.

Might the University ever re-establish the Division 1 team, as Hallingbye hopes? According to Kevin McKinney, “Once a school eliminates a sport, it is very difficult to bring it back. It would take somebody like me and Stig to win the lottery, to establish a constant financial stream to support skiing, as well as establish a women’s sports team to assure gender equity.”

Courtesy Quentin Skinner
Steiner Hybertsen won the national championship in cross country skiing for University of Wyoming three years in a row (1973-75), the only three-time champion the sport has ever had. He and Staale Engen will be inducted into UW’s Hall of Fame this year.

For now fans of the glory days of UW skiing can look forward to honoring two Norwegians who will be inducted into the 2010 Hall of Fame. The names Staale Engen and Steinar Hybertsen will join Stig Hallingbye, who was inducted in 1997, on the University of Wyoming’s Hall of Fame wall.
As for Dag Westgaard, he will graduate in December 2011, earning a degree in finance like his father before him. “Since I’m a dual citizen, one of my citizenships being American, I’m probably going to try my luck in the job market here in the U.S.,” he said.

“I’m always up for a new challenge.”

 

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