In the midst of the Great Depression, Nels and Alma Langsjoen packed their lunch and kids into the family Buick for a 230-mile drive across Minnesota from Fergus Falls to St. Peter.
Nels, 48 and also known as Pops, had been president of Northwestern College in Fergus Falls before the secondary school went belly-up during the era's financial tumult. He had luckily landed a job paying $2,200 a year to teach German, French and Spanish at his alma mater, Gustavus Adolphus College.
Alma, a 37-year-old mother of eight, recalled years later that they found plenty of houses to rent in St. Peter "until we told landlords how many children we had. I think the neighbors were holding their breath."
By the time they exhaled, the Langsjoen name (pronounced LANG-shun) was on its way to becoming synonymous with achievement. The six boys and two girls "swept through the St. Peter schools one after another like a storm," said Pete Langsjoen, 73, one of Pops and Alma's 23 grandchildren.
Five of the eight kids were valedictorians in high school or Gustavus. All excelled in sports, prompting the Minneapolis Tribune to gush in 1943: "The Langsjoens provide one of the most remarkable athletic families in the history of the state," adding that the "easiest way to become the black sheep of the family is not to get an 'A' in a scholastic subject."
All six boys served in World War II, with two of them receiving Purple Hearts. Two followed in Pops' footsteps and became professors, two became doctors, one was a dentist and another became a lawyer. Now a retired engineer living in St. Louis Park, Pete Langsjoen recalls meeting two older St. Peter women more than 50 years ago when he was in high school. They wanted to know if he was a straight-A student or captained the football team.
"I was neither, but it drove home another point; being a Langsjoen in St. Peter carried with it certain high expectations," Pete wrote in a handsome 165-page family history he recently completed.
His grandfather Nels, the oldest of nine children of Norwegian immigrant farmers, was born in 1884 in Dalton, Minn. He graduated from Gustavus in 1911, a star in the classroom and on the football field. While teaching in Pelican Rapids he met Alma Matson, the daughter of Swedish-born farmers. They married in 1918.
After the family arrived in St. Peter in 1932, the boys started delivering newspapers and wearing out Pops' lawn mower to contribute to the family income. A farmer named O'Brien cut them a quarter-a-gallon deal on their 2 gallons of daily milk. They soon moved into a 13-room house at 4th and Madison, where a garden provided fresh corn, tomatoes, peppers and potatoes.
Pops was back in Room 11 of the old Commerce building next to Gustavus' Old Main, teaching languages where he once sat as his class' salutatorian in 1911.
"The floorboards used to creak as Pops walked back and forth in front of his class, hands in coat pockets, thumbs sticking out," the Minneapolis Star reported after his fatal heart attack in 1958 at 74. The story told how his blue eyes peered over his dark-rimmed glasses and how "if the situation was humorous — and it often was — Pops' massive shoulders would shake as he laughed."
Alma died 18 years later, in 1976. Today only the youngest of their eight children is still alive, a daughter also named Alma, 89, who lives in a memory care unit in Texas. Nicknamed Doopy by her brothers, she was a champion swimmer, honor student, homecoming queen and cheerleader in high school before going to Gustavus, getting married and raising six kids in River Falls, Wis.
Her sister Trudy, the second-youngest, also left Gustavus after getting married, and went on to raise two girls and forge a teaching career in Ellensburg, Wash.
The eldest sibling, Arne — Pete's father — taught chemistry for 37 years at Gustavus, where he was a gymnastics champion as a student. He and his wife, Carol, were living in the family home in St. Peter when it was destroyed by the town's 1998 tornado.
No. 2 son Harald was nicknamed Flit and became a distinguished cardiologist after his Navy stint in World War II. Odin "Odie" practiced dentistry in St. Cloud and taught in Duluth, and became president of the Minnesota Dental Association.
Leif practiced law in Willmar and became a judge on the Minnesota Tax Court and Kandiyohi County District Court. Like his dad, No. 5 son Sven "Beanie" taught modern languages at St. Olaf College and Gustavus. Youngest son Ralph "Tonk" became a physician in California.
It took eight years to compile the family's history, Pete said. Isolated at home with little else to do, he said, "It was the pandemic that created the right conditions for actually writing the book."
How does he explain the Langsjoen kids? "I think their success was shaped by the era they grew up in and the nurturing of their parents," Pete said. "Clearly they were instilled with a desire to succeed, and with the drive and confidence to achieve that success."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.