Professor Emeritus Harald Naess was the guiding force of the Scandinavian Studies Department for 32 years, from 1959 until his retirement in 1991. He was the fourth Norwegian professor in the Department’s long history, succeeding Einar Haugen who hand-picked Harald Naess as his replacement when he was called to Harvard. Haugen later said and Harald’s retirement banquet that hiring Harald was one of the smartest things he had ever done.
Harald oversaw the expansion of the Scandinavian Department in the 1960s, as Dick Ringler, Niels Ingwersen, and Kim Nilsson joined the faculty roster, which already included Dick Vowles. Harald fully embraced the Wisconsin Idea and immersed himself in studies of Norwegian immigrants to Wisconsin, most notably Nobel Laureate Knut Hamsun. This made him a popular speaker for Scandinavian heritage groups across Wisconsin, and a font of fascinating information about Norwegian connections to Wisconsin. For example, a concert in Madison by the famous Norwegian violinist, Ole Bull, raised money for some of the first books for the new Memorial Library. Knut Hamsun was brushed off by Rasmus B. Anderson, the first Norwegian professor in Madison, when he came seeking contacts in the Norwegian-American cultural world, forcing Hamsun to move on to working as a clerk in Elroy, Wisconsin for a time.
Harald was a productive scholar, who wrote on a wide variety of topics and was greatly respected in his field. For all of his many contributions to Norwegian culture, he was made Knight First Class of the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olaf in 1986. Generations of students will remember him for his encyclopedic knowledge and his engaging personality. Learning did not stop when you left the classroom, and Harald arranged countless cultural events, picnics, and retreats that involved both the Department and the community.
In a volume dedicated to Harald on the occasion of his retirement, the poet Rolf Jacobsen describes a poetry reading he gave in Madison in the mid-1970s, assisted by the American poet Robert Bly. Jacobsen recalled, “Never—neither before nor after have I had such an alert and engaged audience. The room was boiling with questions. I got the impression that many of the listeners knew more about modern Norwegian literature than I did. I realized that I was under the palms in an oasis…And the man behind it all was Professor Harald Næss.”
Harald was a man of many parts: a musician, a skilled gardener, a master builder, a collector of antiques, a witty storyteller, a gracious host, a beloved teacher, and an occasional lumberjack and shepherd. He and his wife, Ann Mari, lived for several years on a historically Norwegian farm outside of Mt. Horeb, which was the site of many departmental celebrations. They eventually moved back to Norway in the mid-1990s in order to be closer to family, leaving behind an enduring legacy for the Scandinavian Department and the University of Wisconsin.
Memorial gifts benefitting Scandinavian Studies may be directed to the Ann Mari and Harald Naess Fund, University of Wisconsin Foundation, US Bank Lockbox, Box 78807, Milwaukee WI 53728-0807.