Kristjan Valdimar ‘Val’ Bjornson
Editor, Military, Statesman Minnesota Iceland
Kristjan Valdimar ‘Val’ Bjornson was born August 29, 1906 in the largely Icelandic community of Minneota, Minnesota. He was the second of six children to Gunnar B. Bjornson, who immigrated to Minnesota from Iceland as a boy in the 1870s and Ingibjörg Ágústa Jónsdóttir Hurdal, who immigrated to Manitoba in 1883. The household included his paternal grandmother Kristín Benjaminsdóttir, who didn't speak English, so Icelandic was spoken in the home.
His father Gunnar ran the town's weekly newspaper, The Minneota Mascot, and Val and his brothers worked at the family business typesetting, printing, and writing, especially after the onset of the First World War. At 12 Val had his first byline and was school news reporter for The Mascot. Val graduated valedictorian of his high school class after winning a regional championship for debate and competing in Kansas City, being called the 'boy orator of the prairies'. His family moved to the Twin Cities when Gunnar was appointed to the State Tax Commission in 1925, but Val remained to edit the Minneota Mascot until enrolling in the University of Minnesota in 1927. He edited and wrote for the university newspaper The Minnesota Daily for three years before graduating summa cum laude in 1930.
After graduating college, he went back to edit The Minneota Mascot, and made his first trip to Iceland in 1934. He made such a lasting impression on his journey, impressing farmers and politicians alike with his full command of the language and detailed knowledge of the farmsteads around his mother’s birthplace in Western Iceland that he formed a lasting network of friends that would last through his entire life.
He moved from editing The Minneota Mascot to The Minneapolis Journal from 1935 to 1936, then The Minneapolis Tribune until 1941. He also worked in radio during this time for KSTP as the "Northwest's ace news commentator." Before the U.S. entry into World War II, he began a weekly radio broadcast for WCAL in Northfield, MN called "Val Bjornson sketches the Scandinavian Scene" which he continued through the rest of his life. It highlighted news from Scandinavian countries as well as Scandinavian-American interests after its beginnings detailing the invasion of Norway during World War II.
Val Bjornson volunteered for service in World War II, although he was above the draftable age. His ability to speak and write at a high professional level in both English and Icelandic, as well as his newspaper experience led him in 1942 to be commissioned as Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy in Iceland. As a Naval Intelligence officer, he reported on Icelandic sentiments on the war, and was the principal liaison officer between the American military and the American government on the one hand and the Icelandic government and the Icelandic people on the other, writing for Icelandic newspapers to share the American point of view. During the war he was able to also visit his father’s birthplace in Eastern Iceland. While stationed in Iceland, the nation declared independence in 1944 from Denmark, and he could emphasize their viewpoint to American negotiators, paving the way for Iceland to join NATO and be a firm part of the western bloc. He was there beyond the end of the war until 1946, and helped negotiate the transfer of the wartime base in Keflavik to be a long-term NATO base through 2006. According to Icelandic journalist Högni Torfason, the part Valdimar Bjornson played in these negotiations was of vital importance. The Icelandic government awarded him the Commander of the Order of the Falcon in 1946, and upgraded the award in 1986.
It was during the war that he met his wife Guðrún 'Gulla' Jónsdóttir. She had gone from Ísafjörður, her home in Northwestern Iceland, to Copenhagen in 1938 and was unable to return due to the war until 1941. They married in 1946, and their first daughter Helga was born there before the family moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Val and Gulla had their second daughter Kristin in 1948, sons Jon in 1949 and Valdimar in 1952, and daughter Maja in 1955. Val worked as the editorial page editor for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press and succeeded his father as the honorary consul for Iceland. He was active with the Republican Party and other groups such as the Sons of Norway, and received the Order of St. Olaf award for his activities, and he and Gulla offered hospitality to all visitors from Iceland. He spoke at civic events, Sons of Norway, Icelandic Sámkomas, and other Scandinavian organizations, and had an engaging recollection of details, from historical detail to the names and faces of everyone he met. He spoke often of the great heritage of participatory democracy, with Iceland's continuous parliament, or Althing, as prime example, and the contributions of the immigrant community. His oratorical skill in sharing American history and deep respect for Abraham Lincoln led naturally to his entry into the political arena of Minnesota, and in 1950 he ran for State Treasurer. Once elected as a public official he had to step down as the consul for Iceland, which his brothers Bjorn, then Jon, succeeded him.
As State Treasurer, Val demonstrated his integrity in expending state funds. "There was never a single irregularity in the state finances, nor a hint of favoritism", according to State Public examiner Ray Vecellio. When Walter Mondale accused him of funneling certain revenues to "Republican banks," the reaction was "what banks in Minnesota are not Republican?" When the State Capital Credit Union had a fiscal meltdown, he was the only officer who was reelected to the board in its reorganization. He repeatedly expended his time and energy guiding the State Investment board, and reaching out to people all around Minnesota, helping steer state investments to businesses in the state of Minnesota. In the 1950’s and 1960’s this brought extra revenues to the state, with the success of Univac, Control Data, Land O’Lakes, and many other companies. He stepped down as State Treasurer in 1954 to run for the U.S. Senate, losing to incumbent Hubert Humphrey. Despite their differences Val and Hubert developed a cordial relationship and Humphrey was heard in Washington giving high praise to “my good friend Val.” Val spent his "two years off for bad behavior" as he called it back at The Pioneer Press, returning as State Treasurer in 1956 and remaining in that role until 1975. Reelected every 2 years through 1966, then every 4 years, he was active in the National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers and Treasurers, serving as its president from 1964 to 1966. In 1961, he and his family travelled to Iceland through the U.S. Information Agency to promote goodwill towards America after the Soviets sent Yuri Gagarin there. He served on many boards and organizations, including Fairview Hospital Board, the Minnesota Historical Society, the International Institute in Saint Paul, The Sons of Norway, the University of Minnesota Historical Society and Grace University Lutheran Church.
Val was a consistent Republican vote getter in his elections. People identified with his honesty and integrity, especially important in fiscal matters. He was the only Republican elected to state office in 1956 and 1970. In 1973, after the Watergate Crisis, George Herbert Walker Bush, recently defeated as congressman from Texas, spoke to the Minnesota Republicans, where Val seemed to be the only incumbent. Health issues led him to not seek reelection in 1974, and he retired at the end of his term in 1975.
According to Elmer L. Andersen, former governor from 1961 to 1963, Val Bjornson was "underemployed by the people of Minnesota. He would have been a great governor or U.S. Senator. He set high standards of integrity and dedication in elective office."
In his retirement, Val cherished his role as "Afi" to his four grandchildren. He also continued making speeches and writing articles, and was a frequent guest at nearby colleges and schools such as Augsburg College and the University of Minnesota, sharing his knowledge of Minnesota history, the Scandinavian (particularly Icelandic) immigrant experience, and the political scene. He and Gulla were able to travel to Iceland several times during his retirement, and he wrote a political column for Iceland's daily newspaper Morgunblaðið. In 1982, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Iceland established a student exchange scholarship named in his honor.
Val Bjornson died of congestive heart failure March 10, 1987 after being cared for by his loving wife and children. Then Governor of Minnesota Rudy Perpich ordered flags flown half-staff in his honor, and his funeral at Grace Lutheran Church in Minneapolis was attended by many friends and family members from the US and Iceland, including four former governors of Minnesota. The funeral songs included several Icelandic hymns, including the national anthem of Iceland, for this man who was a true patriot of two countries.
By Helga Bjornson Visscher,
edited by Paul Visscher