Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Tom Ross' column appears Tuesdays and Saturdays in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
Find more columns by Tom here.
In the first years after the Nazi invasion of Norway in 1940, a bold Norwegian teenager with unexplored ties to Steamboat Springs risked his life to support the resistance.
Leif Hovelsen pedaled furiously past a roadblock with a shortwave radio rolled up inside the sleeping bag lashed to the handlebars of his bicycle. Detection might have cost him his life. Ultimately, it changed the course of his life forever.
Leif always will be regarded by the skiing community here as the embodiment of his father, Carl, who in February 1914 established the first Steamboat Springs Winter Carnival.
In so doing, Carl Howelsen (the Americanized version of the family surname), established a treasured tradition that still is gaining momentum 95 years later.
Carl Howelsen always will be recalled for the success he achieved in exporting ski sports to cities from New York to Chicago, then Denver and on to Hot Sulphur Springs and finally Steamboat Springs.
Leif Hovelsen, 85, remains passionate about skiing and about Steamboat, where his father's inspiration took full root. But there is a good deal more to this man, who, at the age of 19, was pulled from his parents' home outside Oslo and sent to a Gestapo prison.
Spend any time with Leif, and he freely will tell you of how choosing death over tyranny set him free. Press him a little, and he even will tell you what he thinks democratic society needs to do to move on from the moral morass of Guantanamo Bay.
The Gestapo ultimately caught up to Hovelsen when a colleague turned informant.
During his two-year imprisonment, he was pressed to cooperate with the Nazis. He refused until finally an officer told him he had a week to cooperate before a date was set for his execution.
It never happened, obviously. But during that week, Leif confronted his own mortality.
"I had to pass through a wall of fear and conquer hate," Hovelsen recalled last week. "I thought about my parents and that they needed me alive. I had one visit from my mother in two years.
"But I thought, if I give in for this, I will lose my soul and my personality."
Leif resigned himself to his inevitable death and found peace.
"I took a clear choice, choosing execution, and suddenly I was free. I felt an inner joy that was indescribable."
The Gestapo repeatedly postponed his trial and never came for Hovelsen. He studied history after the war and then joined a group called Moral Disarmament that worked to resist Soviet domination of free-thinking people.
Leif Hovelsen did not weigh in last week on the complexities of keeping America safe from legitimate terrorists who still may be imprisoned at Gitmo. And he expressed no desire to lecture America on how restore its integrity after the treatment of prisoners in the camp.
But as a man who forgave his Gestapo tormentors to their faces after World War II, he has the moral standing to tell us how to begin to move on.
"We have to acknowledge that it was wrong," he said softly.