Roy Almen held his wife Shirley’s hand as she died, surrounded by family, in their home in Brooklyn Park.
Two days later the same family gathered around Roy in the same home as he followed Shirley. Shirley and Roy Almen were married for 63 years, and died on July 16 and July 18. Both were 87.
“They were in their hospice beds right next to each other, in our home. They held hands a lot. And they just sort of declined together,” said Susan Almen, one of the couple’s four children. “I think she just didn’t want to be in this world without him. She went first, and then once she went, it wasn’t long, just a matter of 36 hours, to when he joined her in heaven.”
Over the years the couple touched the lives of many Minnesotans, from their years in education to their long-running Nordic Imports business, which held a spot in the Creative Activities Annex at the Minnesota State Fair in the 1970s.
Roy Almen and Shirley Johnson were born one month apart in 1928, Roy in south Minneapolis and Shirley in White Bear Lake. Both had Swedish ancestry.
Shirley discovered a love of language early in life, and by the age of 21 she’d graduated from college and landed a job teaching French and Spanish at the Minneapolis Christian college then known as Northwestern Bible and Missionary Training School.
Roy’s early interests gravitated to electronics and radio technology, which brought him to Guam, where he worked with radio equipment for the Marine Corps in the immediate postwar years, family members said. Stateside, he worked as a radio engineer and occasional announcer for stations in Minnesota, including KTIS-FM.
At age 21, Roy was taking classes through the GI Bill. He ended up in Shirley’s French class at Northwestern Bible college. A courtship soon sparked that led to a long marriage. (He earned a B.)
“It probably should be noted, because they were very proper people, that he did not ask her out until after the class ended and he was no longer her student,” said Tim Almen, the youngest of the kids who were eventually born to the couple.
Shirley’s working career shifted to the home to raise the kids, while Roy turned to teaching.
Initially he taught electronics at a vocational high school in Minneapolis, and later covered subjects like math, algebra and geometry at Sheridan and Folwell junior highs and Henry and Edison high schools. Roy taught for about 30 years in Minneapolis Public Schools, retiring in 1989.
The Almens’ second act began in the middle of their first. Around 1975, they bought a downtown business then called the Swedish Gift Shop. The store had a strong retail presence, including a State Fair spot, but the business quickly evolved into a wholesaler of imported Scandinavian gifts called Nordic Imports. Shirley, who also knew Swedish, would work in the warehouse during the day, and Roy would come down after school.
“Both of them loved to travel. So they would travel around visiting their buyers, and they would also travel around visiting family, cousins and aunts that still lived in Sweden,” daughter Heidi Almen said. The family-run business closed in 2002.
Roy remained active well into his 80s — he’d bike to Robbinsdale for parades and never look winded. Roy’s diagnosis of inoperable prostate cancer in late February shocked his family, but his children said he never complained about it. Shirley suffered from dementia by then, but had been functioning at a stable level in recent years.
“I don’t know if it was conscious or unconscious,” Susan Almen said, “But at some level, she could see that he was declining and that he wouldn’t be with us long. And she was going right along with him.”
Services will be held Sept. 3 at Washburn-McReavy’s Glen Haven Chapel in Crystal.