John A. Widtsoe: Inspiring a lifetime of learning

Credit: Casey Adams, Deseret News
Credit: Casey Adams, Deseret News
Credit: Casey Adams, Deseret News
Credit: Casey Adams, Deseret News
Credit: Casey Adams, Deseret News
Credit: Casey Adams, Deseret News
Credit: Arne DahlØ
Credit: Photo courtesy of Arne DahlØ
Credit: Photo courtesy of Arne DahlØ
Credit: Casey Adams, Deseret News
Credit: Casey Adams, Deseret News
Credit: Casey Adams, Deseret News
Credit: Photo courtesy of Arne DahlØ
Credit: Casey Adams, Deseret News
Credit: Casey Adams, Deseret News

By Casey Adams Church News contributor

When the Historical Society of Frøya, Norway, approached Arne Dahlø about installing a memorial statue of his distant relative, the former apostle Elder John A. Widtsoe, in the center of town, they proposed a simple argument in favor of the idea.

“The people of Frøya — the young people of Frøya — they skip their higher education,” Brother Dahlø explained during a Skype interview from his home in Trondheim, Norway. “When they get out of high school, they go into the fish farming business and they make loads of money. So even if they have a talent for academia, they just go out and make money and live happy lives that way.

“We need to give them an academic ideal, and here we think that John A. Widtsoe would be a perfect person to place there.”

Crowds will gather on June 17 outside the recently built Cultural and Education Center on the island community of Frøya, Elder Widtsoe’s birthplace, for an unveiling ceremony commemorating his legacy of learning, enshrined in an 8-foot-tall bronze memorial.

In search of knowledge

Before being called as an apostle in 1921, Elder Widtsoe graduated from Brigham Young College in Logan, Utah, and went on to study biochemistry at Harvard, graduating summa cum laude in 1894. He became a university professor and eventually served as president of Utah State Agricultural College (now Utah State University) and the University of Utah. In 1898, Elder Widtsoe also earned a doctorate degree from the University of Göttingen in Germany.

The educator commented on his pursuit of knowledge in his autobiography, In A Sunlit Land.

“One thrill succeeded another as new knowledge was uncovered,” Elder Widtsoe wrote. “I look today with half envy upon the youth to whom the doors of new knowledge are being opened. It has been a joy to me that the zest for new and more knowledge has continued with me throughout the years.”

Research that Elder Widtsoe would later conduct on dry-farming techniques revolutionized the agriculture sector in arid climates, including in Utah. Brother Dahlø said that the world is still benefiting from the discoveries Elder Widtsoe published in his books The Principles of Irrigation Practices and Dry-farming. His findings have since been translated into several other languages.

“These books, they became best-sellers at the time. Imagine a book on agriculture becoming a best-seller,” Brother Dahlø said with a laugh.

Speaking of the local university, Brother Dahlø said it regularly hosts doctorate students, but he pointed out “none of them come from Frøya.”

“The thing is, there is no need for them to apply themselves academically because they make a good living,” he explained. “They have lots of money, but then that’s not the purpose of life — to have lots of money. The purpose of life is to feel like you’ve achieved something for your fellow man and bring the total amount of knowledge of it further.”

Brother Dahlø explained some of the achievements that Elder Widtsoe’s education and research brought about: “If you travel by airplane and you land in the Middle East by the airport and you see this round, green area — that’s John,” Brother Dahlø said. “That’s his way of saying, ‘This is how much water you need to put out, and this is the time of day that you need to put it out. You don’t need to put more water than this and you don’t want to plow deeper than this.’ He is the one who’s made the decision that in dry land you use few plants, strong plants with deep roots.”

Preserving a legacy

A mounted bronze plaque dedicated on May 30, 1981, at the edge of a local Frøya farm plot once marked Elder Widtsoe’s birthplace, but it was taken down in 2006 during a transfer of land ownership. The modest memorial had been tucked away off a main road; Brother Dahlø’s father, Harald, eventually crafted a sign with an arrow reading “Widtsoe Monument” and attached the sign to a large red barn situated near the roadside.

A local committee, which included the younger Brother Dahlø, was formed a number of years later to re-establish the memorial in the more-prominent courtyard area of the Cultural and Education Center.

Local fish-farming businessman Gustav Witzøe, also a distant relative of Elder Widtsoe, suggested a grander gesture in commemorating the legacy of Frøya’s internationally renowned scientist. He agreed to commission a statue on behalf of the community to inspire young onlookers with an ambition to explore their academic potential.

“They will place John A. Widtsoe up against the windows [outside of the Cultural and Education Center]. And he will be placed in the one place in Frøya where he cannot be overlooked,” Brother Dahlø said. “Anyone coming to Frøya will see the statue of John A. Widtsoe.”

The statue depicts a young Elder Widtsoe in a lab apron, standing behind a table laden with various test tubes. He holds one test tube up to the light to study it, while his other hand rests on the table. A variety of barrels, drums and glass bottles indicative of a laboratory are visible underneath the table.

Utah sculptor and painter Dennis Smith originally designed the bronze statue to show Elder Widtsoe as a mature scientist, with facial characteristics members of the Church may be more familiar with.

“We have an image of John Widtsoe with the goatee and mustache,” Brother Smith said, “and without [them] part of the persona that we picture in the Church is gone because he’s this young man who’s clean-shaven.”

Committee members reviewed Brother Smith’s initial design and suggested a more youthful depiction of the researcher in order to connect with younger viewers of the piece.

Frøya, an island community of nearly 5,000 people situated halfway up the west Norweigan coastline, wanted to highlight Elder Widtsoe’s secular legacy with the memorial as a way to broaden its appeal.

“He’s also a special person to the people on the little island area of Frøya, not because of his relationship with the Church, but because he is an important person who came from there,” Brother Smith said.

Several of Elder Widtsoe’s existing relatives will travel to Norway for the unveiling ceremony in June. Doralee Madsen, one of the former apostle’s five living grandchildren, will join other family members and visitors next month to attend the ceremony.

Sister Madsen said the statue stands as a memento of someone who revered and valued education, and who continually encouraged others to do the same in order to achieve more in life.

“As the young people look at this statue at this cultural center,” she said, “hopefully they will be reminded of a young boy who loved education, was trained and taught by his father who was a teacher, and who in turn became a teacher.”

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