Harriet Nielsen was everywhere and she was everything in so many ways but it was always about something or someone else; she was one of the pillars of our Scandinavian local society who really never screamed “me, me, me...” but, she was always there. /Nordstjernan Editor
Thoughts on Harriet Nielsen by Vibeke Steineger, chair, The American Scandinavian Society.
When I moved to New York in the early 80s, I discovered the close knit women at the American Scandinavian Society. They were graciously welcoming, and like me, they were born in one of the Nordic countries, ending up in New York because their first job brought them here. Harriet Nilsen was very active on the board and in committees, and she chaired the first Christmas Ball I attended. She obviously knew the organization well, having been active in the Junior Chapter and the Social Committee since the early 70s when she met her husband, Lars, who was of Norwegian descent. She was older than me, and looked like someone I could learn a lot from: organized, efficient and thoughtful.
(I enjoyed the events and attended when I could, but I was not an active member until 1990, because I traveled 260 days a year for work.)
At a society luncheon at Tavern on the Green honoring Princess Benedikte of Denmark about twenty years ago, Harriet took me aside and complimented me on events I had hosted in the Norwegian community. She asked if I would consider being part of the Program Committee. I had invited her and Lars to a concert in my home earlier that winter—it was intended as a soft fundraiser for the Exchange Year of Music Norway/USA, and I had timidly asked for donations at the end of the program. Apparently only Harriet heard the request, and I remember being so impressed that she and Lars were the only guests who sent me a check afterwards.
I joined the committee and that started twenty years of an event-making friendship. We both insisted it should be fun, and during hours of volunteer work, discussing ideas, creating events, putting invitations and mailings together, carrying wine bottles, buying cheese and crackers and setting tables, we laughed, talked, shared and had fun. You could always count on Harriet to take on any task that needed to be done, and it would get done in the most timely manner. I think she took the responsibility for the Lucia Procession at the Scandinavian Christmas Ball every year for 25 years.
Harriet Nilsen may have been the most hardworking and important pillar of the American Scandinavian Society of the past 20-30 years, and I always thought she should be president. She always said "no" and twice she talked me into it (in 1997 and 2007), but even though there was no question about her commitment to the organization, she seemed to like it better "back stage" ... with a sharp eye on all operations, reaching out to other groups, keeping track of old contacts and remembering them, but keeping a low profile.
When she called me early one morning in 2007, she said, "Vibeke, we have to do something. Can we meet for coffee?" She talked me into accepting the nomination for president, but this time I talked her into being the chair of the Program Committee.
Tuesday, March 9, Harriet was sitting at the head of the table in the library at the Norwegian Church, and again I was reminded how lucky we were that she was chairing the Program Committee—always coming early, prepared with something special on her mind, with meticulous attention to all details, going through her notes on upcoming plans and ideas. A beautiful scarf around her neck and her curly hair strutting around face, laughing easily, always friendly to all, positive, still having fun after all these years.
She apologized for scratching her forehead and mentioned she may have an allergic reaction to something, but it did not seem to have any impact on the energy she exuded while conducting the meeting. She and I agreed on talking on Thursday, March 11, to schedule a time for food tasting at the World Yacht Cruise Lines. (Actually, I was thinking "I will send you an email" as she finally broke down and got her own email address in February. We had teased her for years, but she really preferred the phone.)
When the meeting ended, someone brought forth a Swedish magazine with a full page article on the success of Ingrid Nilsen. Harriet was visibly proud of her 30-year-old daughter, beautiful and smart. A loving marriage, an exceptional daughter, a small, but solid family interrupted.
It is so difficult to accept that just hours after that meeting she would pass away, quietly in her sleep.
Harriet who always seemed to do the right thing, who brought flowers, and sent handwritten thank you notes, who always found time to do it all, and gave her time so generously.
I really do not know how we are going to do all that we do without her.