This summer as I mowed the West Denmark Cemetery, I thought of several people and comments I could have included in my article about the cemetery printed in the March issue of Church and Life. This article gives me a chance to do this and make a correction.
Near the northwest corner of the cemetery are the stones for Mark Johnson and his son Brent, who died as a young man in 2015. Mark was a couple of years behind me in high school, and I knew he had joined the army right after graduation. Last year as I was mowing after Memorial Day, I noticed that there was not a veteran’s marker or flag at Mark’s stone, and I decided that I would at least put a flag there when I was done mowing that day. I made several more rounds with the mower before I realized that Mark doesn’t get a flag yet—the reason being that he is still very much alive! Later when I told him about this, he did seem to enjoy the story and has since pointed out to me a couple times that he is STILL alive and not to put a flag there quite yet.
Ellen Jepsen is buried in the southwest section of the cemetery next to her husband Alvin. Ellen was the West Denmark church organist for almost sixty years, continuing to play until she was well into her eighties. From the time I was a young child until I was almost fifty years old, any time there was a harvest festival, Fastelavn, a Christmas or Fourth of July program, Ellen was there playing the piano for singing or maybe the accordion if a grand march was needed. She was also a 4-H leader for many years, both before and after my time in 4-H. I was honored to be asked to be a pall bearer at her funeral in 2012.
Near the east entrance of the cemetery is a rather unique grave marker, which has colorful rocks and agates set into the concrete. This marks the grave of Svend Miller, who died at age twenty-five in 1943. When I mowed the cemetery as a teenager, I remembered thinking that maybe he had been killed in the war but realized that there was no veteran’s marker for him. At some point I asked my dad about him. Dad knew he died rather suddenly, but it wasn’t from an accident. Many years later, my dad’s cousin, Chris Johansen, was telling me a story from the late 1930s that included Svend, so I asked a few questions about him. He said that Svend had been working in a creamery and had gotten a cut on his hand that became infected and developed into blood poisoning, which killed him. Chris told me that if they had the medicine then that they do now, they could have cleared it up easily, and Svend might be an old man sitting here with us watching the family camp round dancers. So even though it took about forty years, a question I had had about a young man’s death finally got an answer.
One of the first burials in the east addition of the cemetery was Charles Madsen in 1975. He was the Polk County judge for many years. He was a longtime member of West Denmark Lutheran Church and also a longtime Sunday School teacher. He always taught the seventh and eighth grades in a back room separate from the other Sunday School rooms; we always referred to this as “The Dungeon.” When I was in sixth grade, there were no eighth-graders that year, so we were moved up to his class, which was great news. Now I am sure he was a fine teacher, but the reason we were excited to be in his class was that he always took his class to a Twins game at the end of the Sunday School year. This included burger baskets on the way there and ice cream treats on the way back. I’m guessing that my classmates—cousin Sonja and David and Ruth Pedersen—and I were the only ones to get in on this great deal for an extra year. Our previous teacher had been Ove Jensen, who really was an excellent teacher, but we were happy to leave him for the promise of a burger basket and Twins game.
This summer (2022), there was a burial for Gunnar Nielsen, who grew up on the farm bordering the west side of the cemetery. He farmed most of his life south of the West Denmark Church. Gunnar was a WWII veteran who was eighteen when he entered the army at the end of the war. Within a few years, we will know for sure, but I suspect that Gunnar will have the distinction of being the last of the many WWII veterans buried at West Denmark cemetery.
WWII 50th anniversary reunion of veterans. From l-r: Erling Grumstrup, Kristian Henriksen, Svend Utoft, Eiler Ravnholt, Aage Petersen, Axel Nielsen, Lauritz Jensen, Raymond Nielsen, Valdemar ( Wally ) Johansen. They are all West Denmark "boys" and are all buried at the WD cemetery with the exception of Lauritz Jensen.
Kristian and Doris Henriksen
One of the WWII veterans I mentioned in my first article was Kristian Henriksen, who I said was in the Battle of the Bulge. Shortly after that issue was published, I received an email from his daughter Carol who said she didn’t expect to see “fake news” in Church and Life, but that her dad was not in the Battle of the Bulge. This was also confirmed by her brother Neil. I knew Kris had told me about waiting for a large number of retreating American troops to cross a bridge. When they had all crossed, his engineering company’s job was to place mines and string barbed wire to slow the Germans and to place explosives on the bridge to destroy it if needed. Kris said they were terribly worried that the Germans would be on them before their job was completed. This episode sounds as if it were from the Battle of the Bulge, and I always thought it was. When Carol first contacted me, I kidded her that she was wrong because I always listened to her dad’s stories and she didn’t; but after she sent me his service record, I did have to admit that I was wrong. Kris saw a lot of the war in the European Theater: Casablanca, Naples, Anzio (where he endured horrific shelling), the invasion of southern France, and up into the Rhineland and Germany at the end of the war, but he was NOT in the Battle of the Bulge. Hopefully that was the only “fake news” in this article or the previous one, but either way, I think it’s the last mistake you’ll hear about from me.