Published in The News & Observer on May 22, 2015
Holger Olof Victorson Nygard, Professor Emeritus of English at Duke University, died at the age of 94 on Wednesday, May 20, 2015 at his home by the Eno River in Durham, North Carolina. He was born to Viktor and Maria Nygard in the village of Bertby in Vora, Ostrobothnia, the Swedish part of Finland. His first language was Swedish.
As a boy, he made three Atlantic crossings by oceanliner, first to the gold-mining town of South Porcupine in Ontario, Canada. Only child in the Swedish boarding house his parents owned, Holger was a precocious mascot among rowdy miners. He attended primary school upon their return to Vasa, Finland. In 1929 the family made New Westminster, British Columbia their home.
An immigrant at nine, Holger was put in first grade to learn English, advanced a grade in a matter of days, and jumped ahead year by year. The schoolboy’s love of his new language bloomed into mastered scholarship of English. He was President of Student Council at Duke of Connaught High School, performed on the violin, and played lacrosse with the Junior Adanacs (Canada backwards) and the Sapperton Young Liberals. In youth, his closest friends were Charlie and George Kadota, Canadian citizens of Japanese ancestry. Upon WWII Holger assisted Japanese families, when they were forced into the internment camp Tashme in the mountains of British Columbia.
Holger entered the University of British Columbia and met Margaret Rodger, his future wife, in English class. Married in 1944, they both attended the University of California at Berkeley, where Holger attained his Ph.D in 1955. A young Professor at the University of Kansas and the University of Tennessee, he became a full professor at Duke University in 1962. For 13 years he was Director of English Graduate Studies at Duke.
Holger’s 1958 book, “The Ballad of Heer Halewijn” was published by the University of Tennessee and in Finland by the Folklore Fellows Association. Folklorist, linguist, authority on ballads, Medieval studies, Beowulf, Chaucer, and an expert on the Anna Brown ballads, Holger was an internationally prominent scholar. He was a contributing author to several books on ballad studies and active in his field: President of the North Carolina Folklore Society, Ballad Section Chairman for the American Folklore Society, member of the American Dialect Society, the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Studies, and the Scottish Literary Society- to name a few. He received the Chicago Folklore Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship among many grants, fellowships, and awards. Beyond academic circles, he defined “Ballad” for the Encyclopedia Britannica, wrote an article on Sir Walter Scott for The Christian Science Monitor, and spoke on National Public Radio about the bewitching effect of the full moon.
Holger was a notable Duke figure, carrying a briefcase so worn, that it drew bets as to when, if ever, it might be discarded. By retirement he still dangled it, handle-less from one finger. Recognition has come from his students. Folklorist and musician, Alan Jabbour, founding director of the NEA Folk Arts Program, credits Holger with setting him “on my path in life.” At the University of California in LA, students wrote a folksong, “The Professor’s Lament” about him, a Smithsonian Folkways recording. For a decade, the English graduate student picnic resounded late at his home with bonfire and song. Ernest Nelson, head of the Duke Music Department, installed a piano and brought visiting musicians; the Ciompi Quartet sat by the Eno to play. During the 1966 folk music convention at Duke, and a bus full of performers, including Pete Seeger and Odetta, relaxed at the Nygard home, and Elizabeth Cotten sang an impromptu song.
Holger became an American in 1959. Social and environmental concerns he shared with Margaret took him beyond academia to activism. They opposed the Vietnam War and were core local organizers for the Gene McCarthy presidential campaign, with headquarters at Five Points in downtown Durham. In 1963 Holger made a prophetic move to the historic home of the miller Cole by the Eno River. The Eno River State Park had its beginnings out of the house he named Yggdrasil. In 1966 he and Margaret founded the Association for the Preservation of the Eno River Valley with a fledgling group. Holger made the first presentation to the Durham City Council, opposing the city’s plan to dam the Eno, proposing the creation of a regional natural park. He led the Association’s first hike on the Cabelands. In the early years, he and Margaret led a tumultuous battle to rescue the river from development and bring the state park into being. He was honored as Board Member Emeritus of the Eno Association upon Margaret’s death in 1995.
On occasion Holger raised a glass to sing an old Swedish toast, the toast to be the last song at a gathering and the drink a metaphor for tears: “Now we drink the Skoal of friends! Good Tear! Near-being ones, far-being ones, and all wayfaring ones, Good Tear!” Family and friends bid him the same farewell upon his departure from a long life, fully-lived.
Holger was preceded in death by his wife, Margaret Nygard and son Stephen Nygard of Agana Heights, Guam. He is survived by daughter Jennifer Nygard and son-in-law Bill Hamlet, daughter Kerstin Nygard and son-in-law Cornell Johnson III, son Erik Nygard and his life partner, Teresa LaBiche, and grandson Rowan Nygard (son to Kerstin and Cornell) – all of North Carolina. He is survived by his second grandson Stephen Nygard II and daughter-in-law Rhea Nygard of Dallas, Texas. He is survived also by his sister Doreen Barth and her husband Tor Barth. He leaves extended family in Africa, Australia, Canada, Spain and Finland.
A memorial service will be held in the future, date and place to be announced. Holger was always surrounded by flowers from Margaret’s garden. In lieu of flowers, donations in his name should be written to the Margaret C. Nygard Land Acquisition Fund and mailed to the Eno River Association, 4404 Guess Road, Durham, NC 27712.