Immigrant stories: Bruce Christensen
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Intro: Bruce Christensen has spent most of his career as the executive director of Mountain Valley Development Services, an organization that provides an array of services to children and adults with developmental disabilities. He also just completed eight years of service on the Glenwood Springs City Council, including six years as the city’s mayor.
Christensen: Both sides of my family emigrated from Denmark. My father came in the late 1920s and both of my mother’s parents came right around the turn of the twentieth century. It was a time when the United States was a great magnet to people in Europe. Economic conditions weren’t great in Europe back then and a lot of people were coming here looking for opportunity. That was true for my father and my mother’s parents.
My grandfather was seventeen when he came in 1902. He spent a lot of time traveling in the West working on the railroads. He told me a lot of interesting stories about working in the Northwest. He was in California right after the San Francisco earthquake. He spent most of his life as a dairy farmer and only went back to Denmark one time and that was after he was too old to milk cows anymore and had sold his herd.
He went back in the 1960s. I can remember him being very excited about his trip but he came back disillusioned by all the changes that had taken place during the sixty years he was gone. A lot of the farms he had remembered as a young man were gone and factories and towns had taken their place.
Gallacher: What about your father’s parents?
Christensen: I never met either of them. They both stayed in Denmark and died shortly after I was born. My dad only went back to visit once in the 1930s just before he married my mother.
My dad was one of fifteen children, which was pretty common back then. People who had large farms had large families because it was a source of free labor. In the case of my father’s family, twelve of the fifteen children immigrated to the United States. They wanted to do something other than work on the family farm, so they came to the United States seeking work in other areas.
Dad came with one of his brothers when they were both in their twenties. My dad told stories of being herded through Ellis Island with hundreds of other people. He said he was afraid the whole time of being rejected and accepted. If he was rejected he would be put on a boat and sent back and if he was accepted he would end up on the streets of New York with no English and no clue as to what to do or where to go.
The two of them made their way to Chicago and then to Texas where they worked in a greenhouse. Dad told me a lot about being in the South in the twenties and thirties. There was a great deal of discrimination towards people who were not from the United States. He said people in the South referred to them as Yankees, which was a term that was applied to anyone not native of the South at the time. So, after a few years of not feeling very welcome, he and his brother migrated back to the Chicago area.
He went to work in dairies just outside of Chicago. Somehow, probably through the Danish subculture, he and his brother heard about a farmer who had four daughters and lived only fifty miles away. And it turned out that my dad and his brother eventually married two of his daughters.
My folks lived near Chicago until I was about three and that’s when they moved back to the Illinois countryside and bought a farm that adjoined my grandparents’ farm. We were on one side of my grandparents and my aunt had a farm on the other. There was a strong sense of family in those Danish communities, not unlike many of the Italian families that were settling this valley at about the same time. I can remember, as I was growing up, we would share work. When we baled hay we went from my grandfather’s farm to our farm and then to my aunt’s.
My father’s brothers and sisters were scattered across northern Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin. Whenever they would get together I felt like I was stepping into a Danish community with all its customs and its food.
Danes eat several times a day. In addition to breakfast, lunch and dinner there are mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks for coffee and pastries. When I was growing up, I would walk over to my grandparents’ place in the afternoon, when my grandfather took his break from the fields, and have coffee and pastries with him and my grandmother.
Gallacher: Were you an only child?
Christensen: Yes, which is pretty interesting when you consider that my grandparents had huge families.
Gallacher: You must have worked pretty hard being the only child on a working farm.
Christensen: Our farm was small so my dad worked in town at a dairy to make ends meet and my mom and I did most of the farm work. I started having responsibilities when I was seven or eight years old. I was driving a tractor when I was nine and cars and trucks when I was twelve.
There’s a funny story about my grandfather. When he was in his late seventies, he failed his driver’s test. So he just parked his car and drove his tractor when he went to town. He wasn’t the only one. There used to be all these tractors at the coffee shop in the morning. He and his buddies had figured out that they didn’t need a driver’s license for farm equipment.
Gallacher: Did you feel different being a farm kid.
Christensen: No, because half the kids I went to school with lived on farms. Farming changes your social life. School sports weren’t an option because I had responsibilities at home. It was hard sometimes, but I do think that kind of discipline prepares you well for life.
Gallacher: Do you think your experience as the only child of Danish immigrants shaped who you are today?
Christensen: Well I have spent almost all of my adult life working in human services in a field that helps people who really face some significant challenges. I don’t know if it’s the Nordic genes or the Scandinavian value of putting society above self. I am in no way saying that I am some selfless person. I’ve lived a very good life. But you go home at night feeling like you did some good that day. That’s very important to me.
It’s also why I got somewhat involved in government. I had always been a student of government and hadn’t planned to get involved. But this community has been very good to me and I began to feel like I should give back. I was a very good friend of Ted O’Leary’s and considered him my mentor. It was Ted who urged me to get more active in the community.
Gallacher: How were you able to balance your work and your community service?
Christensen: I think part of it goes back to my farm background where work is life and life is work. I think when you grow up that way you do what you need to do to get the job done.
Gallacher: What are you proudest of at Mountain Valley?
Christensen: I am proud of the accomplishments that we have enabled the folks we work with to achieve. These are people who face significant challenges everyday, but they lead really good lives. Part of their quality of life is due to the culture of Glenwood and Carbondale.
I have done accrediting surveys in thirty states as part of my work and I have never seen any towns that are as open to diversity as Glenwood and Carbondale. The people we work with are treated very, very well in these communities.
Gallacher: What are you proudest of in your years on city council.
Christensen: I think we have worked cooperatively with the surrounding communities for the betterment of the region. I am also proud of the fact that the city of Glenwood Springs has taken an active stand in favor of the environment on every single issue related to clean air or clean water. These things are very important to our communities and our citizens.
Gallacher: As the son of immigrants what is your view of immigration today?
Christensen: I think, throughout our history, the first generation of any immigrant group has been treated rather poorly. I think “the melting pot” is more than just a saying. I think it is true that the United States, more than any other country in the world, has developed into an eclectic, diverse and dynamic entity because of all the contributions of the various cultures that have come here.
I do feel that we are not able to open our doors to everybody, but I also feel that the hardworking people who are here deserve some sort of track to citizenship that will allow them to do what our parents did, make a good life.
I was the third person in my extended family to graduate from high school and the first to graduate from college. For my parents it was the realization of a dream and one of the main reasons they left Denmark – to make a better life for themselves and their children.
– To read other Immigrant Stories go to http://www.immigrantcolorado.blogspot.com.
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