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DISTANCE LEARNING, INDEED: Norwegian immigrant enrolled at UND in 1958; gets degree today

The nudge that Thore Fossum needed to finish his college degree -- more than half a century after he enrolled at UND -- came some months ago in a conversation with his daughter.

Thore Fossum
Thore Fossum tells a story from his time as a student at UND in the late 1950's and 1960's in Merrifield Hall on the UND campus in Grand Forks, N.D. on Aug. 4, 2011. Nearly 53 after dropping out in 1963, Foussum will finally graduate this Friday after completing his undergraduate studies by taking an online class that fulfilled his Capstone requirement. Herald photo by Christian Randolph.

The nudge that Thore Fossum needed to finish his college degree -- more than half a century after he enrolled at UND -- came some months ago in a conversation with his daughter.

"One day we are talking about school and how important it is and she says to me, 'Dad, don't talk to me like that. You're a dropout.' "

Apparently realizing that her taunt may have sounded a bit harsh, K.C. Fossum, 22, added in a more gentle tone, "Why don't you get your degree?"

And so he did. Fossum, of Poulsbo, Wash., contacted UND to have his transcript analyzed and enrolled in a distance-learning course to complete a final requirement. Today, with his daughter and other members of his family watching, the 70-year-old Norwegian immigrant who built a successful life in home construction in the Seattle area will accept a degree during UND's summer commencement.

More than 430 UND students are eligible to take part in the 2011 Summer Commencement ceremony at 3 p.m. today in the Chester Fritz Auditorium.

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Fossum enrolled at UND in 1958, a little more than a year after leaving Norway on his own at age 16.

"The big shots on campus back then -- they're all buildings now," he joked as he walked across campus on Thursday, past halls named for former deans and university presidents.

"This was a wonderful educational experience," he said, despite the 48-year interlude between his departure in 1963 and his triumphant return today.

"Being at UND gave me a positive outlook on life," he said.

He clearly had fun here, too. He stood Thursday in one of the marble stairwells in Merrifield Hall, glancing out a second-story window, and the scene reminded him of one of the lighter moments of his collegiate career: a free-for-all water fight.

"A woman was coming out of the door down there and she saw us up above, and she said, 'Oh no, you can't do this to me! I'm Dean Lewis' wife!' "

Fossum smiled at the memory.

"Absolutely wrong thing for her to say," he said.

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'Get up and go'

He was born in Jevnaker, an industrial town northwest of Oslo, just after Nazi Germany had occupied the country early in World War II.

"My father had a factory where he made bed frames, and he had a sausage factory, and he made bathing suits and clothing for children -- all at the same time," he said.

"I got all the dirty jobs. There was no lying around in Norway."

One day in the mid-1950s, he came home and told his parents that when he was finished with school he was going to America. He was 14 or 15 at the time.

Why leave home?

The question brought tears as he remembered that long-ago day.

"No special reason, other than the old 'get up and go' spirit," he said. "Afterwards, thinking about it, I realized it was typical Norwegian -- to head for the sea without really knowing where you're going."

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And his parents' reaction?

"Dad said to mother, 'Well, maybe we should go, too.' And they did!" Fossum said. "They actually left for America before I did. I wanted to finish school."

His parents and a brother left in 1956, settling eventually in Minot, N.D., where his father worked as a carpenter. Thore joined them in 1957 and attended Minot High School for a year.

At UND in 1958, "science was the thing to do," he said, and he signed up for classes in math and physics. Later, however, he became more interested in sociology.

"I learned a lot," he said, but the strains of jumping into a new culture, "where you have to adapt to everything around you," took a toll. Also, he was married in 1962, and he was working many hours, leaving less and less time for studies.

"One year I just about flunked out," he said. Books had to be moved from the old library to the new Chester Fritz Library, and Fossum took the job.

"That was a mistake," he said.

He also ran track for UND, and he managed an intramural hockey team. In the early 1960s, he said, he took part in a sit-in when a local bar denied service to some friends, apparently on racial grounds.

"It wasn't a big demonstration," he said. "It was just us going in and them asking us to leave. But we wanted to make the point."

Always at home

Jan Orvik, of UND's Office of University Relations, had Fossum as a student in her distance-learning course on media writing. She calls him "one of the most 'alive' people I've ever met ... engaging, curious, charming and funny."

He embraces technology, she added. "His final project in my class was a semi-autobiographical Christmas story for iPad that he wrote for his grandchildren, complete with photos. It told of his childhood in Norway."

Fossum said he wants to continue writing, in both English and Norwegian.

He also plans a return to Norway next year, as part of a group called the Pacific Coast Norwegian Singers. He's been back just once before, in 1980.

"I usually feel at home everywhere I've lived," he said. "I'm not tied to the geography. I'm tied to the people.

"They say your home is where the heart is, and your heart is with your friends."

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send email to chaga@gfherald.com .

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