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Founder of Concordia’s Language Villages dies at 84

From left, Concordia Language Villages founder Gerry Haukebo of Pelican Rapids, MN visited with Alden Kittleson of Bemidji at the Finnish Village during International Day at Concordia Language Villages, August 9th, 2008. Kittleson is the early 1960's showed Haukebo and others the site where Concordia Language Villages is now located.

By Ryan Johnson, Forum Communications

PELICAN RAPIDS, Minn. – Even as a young boy, Gerhard “Gerry” Haukebo was fascinated with foreign countries and their cultures.

His oldest daughter, Beth Haukebo, said she’s often heard the story of how he decided to dig a hole to China from his parents’ farm near Underwood. The plot didn’t work, but his passion for the foreign didn’t go away.

“He had an interest, a wanderlust, from a very early age,” she said.

Haukebo used that passion when he founded Concordia College’s Concordia Language Villages in 1961, a program that now teaches 15 languages to more than 11,000 kids from around the world each year.

Haukebo died Sunday at his home in Pelican Rapids at the age of 84 with his wife of 62 years, Doris, at his side.

A ‘creative spark’

After finishing high school in Roseau, Haukebo spent one year in Japan with the Marine Corps before returning to Minnesota to attend Concordia College. He completed a bachelor’s degree at the University of Minnesota and went to Germany, where he was a teacher and principal instructing American children at a military base for four years.

His experience abroad showed him that teaching a foreign language to children didn’t have to be confined to the classroom, Beth Haukebo said, and his pupils seemed to learn more from playing and interacting with each other than they did through studying.

“He was very impressed with how, at an early age, kids could pick up the language,” she said.

Haukebo brought that insight back to Minnesota in 1959 when he joined the faculty at Concordia. He organized a summer camp experience to teach kids German and, in 1961, launched Concordia’s Language Villages with 72 students.

Bemidji site

The program has grown over the past 50 years, including the creation of several architecturally authentic sites about 20 miles northeast of Bemidji, to now offer 15 languages to thousands of kids every year.

The Bemidji land, previously owned by Ira and Shirley Batchelder, was called to Haukebo’s attention in the early 1960s by John Alden “Kit” Kittleson of Bemidji, who died Feb. 3.

Haukebo and a board of development advisers had mailed letters to chambers of commerce in 14 Minnesota communities, searching for a large lakeshore property. Kittleson, who was working as a real-estate agent, received one of the letters and showed Haukebo the site on Turtle Lake.

“We visited 29 sites and this was chosen No. 1 unanimously,” Haukebo said in 2008 at Concordia Language Villages’ International Day, a public event held twice each summer.

“This place is Gerry’s miracle,” Kittleson said at the event. The Language Villages was one of his greatest passions.

Christine Schulze, the vice president for Concordia Language Villages, said Haukebo’s “creative spark” lives on today as the program immerses participants in language and culture.

“Gerry’s ‘brainstorm’ was way ahead of its time five decades ago, and now language teaching is never separated from its cultural context,” she said. “Concordia Language Villages endures today from the vision and determination of one man to create a ‘grand simulation’ that creates the context for transformational learning.”

Haukebo joined Minnesota State University Moorhead in 1967, serving as director of student teaching and chairman of the education department before finishing his career as the university’s vice president for public affairs.

He retired in 1989, moving with Doris the following year to a house on Pelican Lake, where he kept busy with hunting, fishing and volunteer work.

But Beth Haukebo said her father, a teacher at heart who had a “magnetism” that drew children to him, never stopped sharing his love of foreign cultures. He formed the Global Language program in 1997, teaching English at 10 locations across China. The program was handed over to Concordia a couple of years later.

She said he also had a way of turning everything into a learning experience. About eight years ago, he decided to add a second cabin to the small island he bought in Canada five decades earlier so his grandkids could help build the structure – getting the same experience their parents had when they were young and helped build the family’s first rustic cabin.

“He was a great worker and a great teacher, and he always really saw the best in people,” Beth Haukebo said. “I think he brought out the best in people.”

But she said her father remained humble, even as the language programs he fostered drew international attention and attracted visits from foreign dignitaries and American politicians.

“He was so quick at giving credit to others, and he was just unbelievably pleased with how well the Language Villages have done,” she said.

Klaus Scharioth, Germany’s ambassador to the United States, visited Concordia Language Villages in Bemidji in 2010 for the 50th anniversary of Waldsee, the German village.

“I’m deeply impressed with what you’re doing here and how you’re doing it,” he said of Waldsee and the Language Villages.

 “Total immersion is not only language,” Scharioth said. “Total immersion is also culture. Total immersion is also the trends in a country.”

Haukebo was also present at that celebration. He drew a standing ovation from the audience.

Visitation for Haukebo is 5-7 p.m. Friday at Wright Funeral Home in Moorhead. A funeral service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at Cormorant Lutheran Church near Lake Park.


The Bemidji Pioneer contributed to this article.

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