Nels George Akerlund
1910 — 2008
It must have been an extraordinary and strange sight seeing a wife, children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, plus a few in-laws encircling a hospital bed whose rails were decorated with twinkling lights and brightly colored balloons. It must have been an extraordinary and strange sound hearing boisterous musical renditions of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” “When the saints go Marching In,” and, finally, “Tryggare Kan Ingen Vara” resounding in the bedroom where the person being serenaded appeared to be totally oblivious to the celebration. However, when the music subsided, everyone agreed that the eyes of the 97-year-old patriarch glowed with delight, as did ours. The party gave us an opportunity to say “We love you” to Nels and he responded as best he could.
Yes, extraordinary, certainly, but not strange. Nels Akerlund was an extraordinary person, especially to those of us who knew him well and loved him deeply. It was his idea, expressed a couple of days earlier, that he get up from his bed and make certain the house was in perfect order for a huge, joyful festivity he intuited was about to occur. So in the final days of his journey on this earth, we honored his request with a festive occasion variously described as “The Promotion to Glory” or “The Pearly Gates” affair.
Nels deserved a party for a whole lot of reasons. Back in 1929, at the age of 18, he left Sweden with $20 in his pocket, very little English in his vocabulary, an eighth-grade education for a diploma, and no promise of a job. His contact in this “foreign country” was a cousin in Chicago who offered him a place to stay for a few days. He was fortunate in finding employment in the laundry of Illinois Masonic Hospital. His favorite narrative about the year he lived in the Windy City was recounting the morning en route to work when he walked past Heyer’s garage on Clark Street a mere two hours before Capone’s infamous Valentine’s Day massacre.
Then, he moved to Rockford, Illinois, home to countless Swedes, where he became the “sheaf injuneer” (Chief Engineer) at Swedish American Hospital which proved to be a most felicitous event, not only because of the numerous accolades he received professionally, but also because he made the acquaintance of a student nurse, Florence Anderson, who eventually became his wife and the mother of their five children, David, Karen, Dan, John, and Debbie. Leaving his hospital job, Nels became a self-employed painting contractor and quickly gained a reputation as a “perfectionist” in performance but surprisingly modest in his fees.
At his memorial service in the Bethesda Covenant Church where he and Florence were members, he was eulogized as already refurbishing the Heavenly Gates and volunteering to assist in “preparing rooms” for the rest of us who are destined to follow. Four of Nels’ children went to North Park: Karen (1957-58), Dan (1961-63), John (1963-64), and Debbie (1971-72). Karen shared with the congregation the story of the “Going Away Party” and everyone seemed to agree that, knowing Nels and his penchant for hosting almost every family gathering, this was a most appropriate tribute, extraordinary but not at all strange.