‘Go in the direction of the things you love’

An artist drew this portrait of Ivar Vikingstad in May of this year.

Seward honors the unique life of Ivar Vikingstad

Editor’s note: Longtime Seward resident Ivar Vikingstad died on Sunday, Aug. 3, just days after this story was published in the August issue of The Bridge. You can read a sample of Vikingstad’s stories, essays and poetry here.

Ivar Vikingstad is a remarkable man. Born in 1928, the longtime Seward resident has been an inventor, musician, writer, philosopher, poet, photographer, businessman, electrical engineer and even a state-champion bodybuilder. Written off at school as “retarded” (his own words) due to a hearing impairment — unacknowledged by his teachers — he went on to become self-taught, mastering just about everything that interested him. Karen Aslagson, Vikingstad’s friend of 30 years, calls him a genius.

This summer, the Seward Neighborhood Group honored Vikinsgtad’s lifelong achievements with an official letter of recognition, and over the past few months, his neighbors have recorded a series of interviews with Vikingstad in order to document his marvelous life and approach to living it. Jean Johnstad has transcribed notes (from which most of this article is drawn) on the 10 hours of tapes, which will go into the SNG history project archives.

Sadly, Seward’s recognition of Vikingstad’s life comes very near to the end of it; as July wore on, he was in the late stages of throat cancer, which he had chosen not to treat, preferring instead to remain in his Seward home.

Milwaukee Avenue holdout

Vikingstad’s family moved to Seward in 1935, when he was seven years old. He recalls depression-era poverty, and he slid through school, moved on from grade-to-grade “because he did not cause trouble” until he was “kicked out” of South High School and encouraged to attend trade school. There he followed his interest in science and electricity, inventing a machine to test tubes. Later, he owned a TV repair business near Cedar and Riverside avenues.

He was drafted during WWII but failed the physical because of his deafness, which he was told surgery could repair. He declined, figuring it would make no sense to then die on the battlefield, he said. Instead, he worked at the Flour City Ornamental Iron Building making depth charges for the war effort.

In 1953, Vikingstad bought a house on Milwaukee Avenue, and he was one of the last holdouts roughly 25 years later when the city wanted to buy him out — for $5,000 — to make way for urban renewal. During the interviews, Vikingstad recounted how the title to his house “disappeared” from city records, and how his power was cut off and his mailbox was removed in an attempt, he believes, to make the property seem abandoned. When the city questioned his occupancy, he produced receipts of utility bills back to 1953.

His wife Carol recalled how the negotiations — which lasted nearly a decade, she said — came down to his poem, When Is a House a Home?, which Vikingstad read to city officials. “I could see instantly the changes on the faces of the men around the table,” said Carol, “and I knew Ivar had won.” In the end, the couple was offered $20,000 for the house. All-too coincidentally, they won the right to buy their current house through a city lottery system — for $20,000. His original house was demolished.

A ‘small Arnold Schwarzenegger’

Bodybuilding was just one of the many interests Vikingstad took on during his lifetime. As with most of his endeavors, he excelled, taking two state titles in the mid-50s for his weight class. (Small in stature, he told his interviewers to “imagine a small Arnold Schwarzenegger.”) He also posed for art classes, where he could “get paid for not moving.”

Even later in life, Ivar took up music, mastering the harmonica and customizing a guitar so he could play chords by holding down the strings with a thumb and strumming with the other hand. He also devised a system that allows him to easily transpose music from one key to another (which a friend worries no one else understands).

Vikingstad frequented open stage nights at local venues, where he would play and sing or read from his self-published books of children’s stories, poems and philosophy. His “Mr. Electricity” act was a favorite; Vikingstad toyed with 20,000 volts of electricity, even lighting a long fluorescent bulb while a volunteer — often a pretty woman — held it.

‘Find what you like and do it’

During one interview, Vikingstad commented on his beliefs. Writes Johnstad: “They are derived from the methodology of his decisions: observe, accumulate data, develop a hypothesis, and make tentative decisions. He believes that most people have belief systems that have been imposed by others, and that they don’t test them.”

Vikingstad said he prefers Popeye’s “I am what I am” to Descarte’s “I think therefore I am,” and he posits in his self-published book Practical Philosophy that human action is a function of genetic wiring, personal experience and response to suggestion — a concept he says can lead us to be more generous-minded towards others. “We can understand how useless it would be to blame the tiger for his claws and fangs, and his corresponding impulse to use them,” he writes.

Vikingstad also offers a more succinct strategy for happiness: “Go in the direction of the things you love.” To be happy, he suggests: “Don’t want too much,” and he explained to his interviewers: “Working hard at something I enjoy is the best. Find what you like and do it.”

Johnstad said that Vikingstad was pleased to conduct the sometimes-long interviews despite his illness and the effort and pain of speaking. After one session, he apologized if he didn’t make the next weekly interview, but he did indeed return — with a concertina and harmonica to play for neighbor Teri Schweitzer’s children. “He insists that he loves to talk,” Johnstad writes. She called him a “fascinating man.”

Vikingstad has chosen to write the last chapter of his life like the rest of it: on his own terms.

More than two years ago, doctors gave Vikingstad three weeks before he wouldn’t be able to move. They wanted to perform an invasive surgery, which Vikingstad didn’t trust. Since that the grim diagnosis, Vikingstad has re-roofed the house and laid a series of heavy pavers near the front steps.

Vikingstad’s sister Betty Hall, who lives about a mile away, said weekly visits have brought her closer to her brother in those two years.

Johnstad said she brings more than a historic record from the interviews. “I have really learned a lot from him,” she said. She’s not the only one, and, with the words, work and memories that Vikingstad has created, she won’t be the last.

last revised: September 2, 2009