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Curt Pederson might have been in the midst of hanging a new exhibit at the American Swedish Institute or readying a demo at the Minnesota State Fair.

But if you ran into him, Pederson would stop, smile and chat. Then, if you were lucky, he would offer you a tour.

"It was like he had all the time in the world for you," said Samantha Gilbertson, competition supervisor at the State Fair.

An impromptu tour, in Pederson's hands, became a special occasion. As senior curator of historic properties at the American Swedish Institute, or ASI, Pederson knew every nook of its Turnblad Mansion, which he stewarded for decades.

In fact, his first gig at the institute, in the early 1980s, was as an artist, restoring the mansion's decorative ceilings.

"It was Curt's house," said Bruce Karstadt, the institute's president and CEO. "This historic mansion was an integral part of Curt's work, his identity, his engagement with community.

"He was a fixture here as much as anything else."

A stalwart at ASI and the State Fair, where he was superintendent of the Creative Activities building, Pederson died Feb. 3 during a procedure following a heart attack. The Shoreview resident was 72.

After growing up in little Brandon, Minn., near Alexandria, Pederson studied and traveled. A talented piano player, he learned how to build organs. "He was small and could climb up into them to set the pipes," said his wife, Jean.

The couple met through a mutual friend who thought they'd hit it off. "We both had strange senses of humor," she said with a laugh.

While working toward his master's degree in design at the University of Minnesota, in 1976 Pederson took a part-time job for class credit at the fair's Creative Activities building.

He and his fellow students were "interested and young and willing to climb into display cases," said Linda Nelson Bryan, who started there in 1972. "It felt sort of like a little family."

Pederson returned year after year, eventually becoming superintendent, orchestrating the judging and displaying of thousands of submissions in hundreds of categories from weaving and cross stitch to pickled beets and apple pie.

In 2012, he made news for launching a quirky new category: Quilt on a Stick. "We thought, 'It's the 21st century,' " he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "Let's take the medium of quilting and let's give people a chance to give it a little narrative."

Tender and unassuming, Pederson also had a wry sense of humor, Karstadt said. "He joked: 'Quilts — they're not just for beds anymore.'"

Judges signed up again and again to work with Pederson, who was "one part serious curator and one part elfin magic," said Bryan, a textile artist and longtime judge.

Over long days, he treated the judges with respect and, when needed, protected them from competitors upset about how their handiwork was assessed. From his superintendent booth, he handled requests from fairgoers. "If someone says, 'I don't see my grandma's sweater,' Curt is out there helping them find it," Bryan said.

At ASI, Pederson was generous with his time and talents, said Marcia Anderson, who serves on the collections committee. But he never needed a spotlight.

"He reminded me of a candle, the quality of warmth and light you get from it. It's not heating up the room, exactly ... but it offers a soft beam of energy."

Some days, Pederson would bring his daughter, Mara, to work with him, and she'd read books on the mansion's window seat and make up stories about being the princess in the castle, his wife said. "He sure loved that mansion."

Curt Pederson works to restore the ceiling of the Turnblad Mansion’s Grand Hall in 1981.
Curt Pederson works to restore the ceiling of the Turnblad Mansion’s Grand Hall in 1981.

ASI

To staff and artists, he offered — and gladly received — pastries of all kinds but favored plain, cake donuts.

"He was so beloved by artists of all genres," said Karl Reichert, executive director of the Textile Center, where Pederson was a quiet, wise board member and "a champion of craft" whose populist approach was a perfect fit for the State Fair.

"He had this amazing way of uplifting anyone who had a creative spirit," he said.

When Reichert stopped by ASI recently, Pederson asked him, "Do you want to take a tour?" He led Reichert into room after room, telling story after story.

"I thought, 'Do you have time for this?'" Reichert said, laughing. "I've been a member of ASI but I've never had that kind of tour before. ... But that was Curt. You never felt you were imposing with him. He was just that gracious."

A gathering to honor Pederson is planned for 9:30 a.m. May 28 at the institute, 2600 Park Av. S., Minneapolis.