Roy Samuelsen, 1933-2017

My father had terrible toes. They were badly misshapen, gnarled and twisted. He wasn’t particularly embarrassed about it; when someone noticed and said something, he’d laugh. He had “Hitler toes,” he’d say. Or “Quisling toes.” They were an artifact of his childhood, a reminder of the Nazi occupation of Norway.

My Dad was seven when the Nazis invaded Norway, twelve when the Germans were finally defeated. And as a child in Norway, it was simply impossible to get new shoes. Any leather that might be used to make shoes was reserved for German soldiers. A Norwegian kid had no chance at all. I suppose that a quisling–a Norwegian traitor–might have gotten on a list somewhere; a Norwegian Nazi might have gotten shoes to match a child’s growth. But my grandfather and great-uncles all were in the Resistance; all were fiercely anti-German. Bestefar, my wonderful grandfather, worked at the glass factory in Moss, making glass for German airplanes and jeeps and warplanes. It was the only time in his life he was bad at a job. Like all Norwegian patriots, he worked slowly, inefficiently, delivering glass of the poorest quality, and sabotaging shipments whenever possible. And then, evenings and weekends, he’d ride a bicycle for miles into the countryside, looking for farmers so he could buy or barter for milk for his kids.

And during air raids, my father would sing. Just a little kid, but he was a natural entertainer even then, as a child, and even then, he sang exuberantly, cheerfully. He loved the folk songs his grandfather taught him, but even more, he loved American songs, especially cowboy songs. At his funeral, my son played Home on the Range on the guitar. Dad loved that song from an early age, and could bang it out on the guitar and sing it at high volume. Everything, with Dad, was high volume.

Because that was Dad. An opera singer, a Wagnerian baritone, and a somewhat hammy but effective singing actor; he was above all, an entertainer. And he loved it. He loved everything about it, singing, acting, performing. He was never more alive than when he was singing.

At his funeral, my brothers and I knew we needed to hear his voice again. That, for me, was the hardest part of his death; the thought that that voice had been silenced. So we played this:

“I love life.” Nothing captured Dad better. Really, I never knew him to be down; never knew him to have the blues. He loved to sing, yes. But he loved all of it. He loved waterskiing, and hiking, and tooling around Lake Monroe in his boat. He loved playing catch with his boys, loved playing basketball with us, loved tossing a football around. He wasn’t much of an athlete, but that didn’t matter; he’d come home from a hard day teaching–or rehearsing or coaching–and he’d see us out playing. He had to join us.

And he loved to travel. He and Mom visited every continent–yes, including Antarctica–and everywhere he went, he took his camera. He was an outstanding photographer, with a great eye for composition and color and contrast. His skills with a camera are shared today by my brother, Rob; two terrific nature photographers. Dad also loved to work with his hands. He could build anything, and loved it, a good carpentry project. And what he build, lasted. My brother Rolf is currently working with his sons to renovate a home; again, my Dad’s legacy continues.

And what about me? Because I was always the odd man out, I thought. When we’d take the boat out, I brought a book; I’d rather read. I had no carpentry skills whatsoever; I really, genuinely, can’t fix things, or build things, or imagine ever wanting to. I liked to sing, but we all sang; you couldn’t be a Samuelsen and not sing. I fancied myself an intellectual; my Dad was an academic, but hardly any kind of scholar. His publications were all performances. My Dad was the ultimate extrovert, outgoing and charming and greatly beloved. As I said at his funeral, he probably had more close personal friends in Iceland and South Korea than I have total. My Dad was larger than life, a booming, friendly, lover of life. He was also a man of immense kindness and charity. I think I’m fairly outgoing, and certainly try to get along with people. But in many respects, we were different people, and we struggled for mutual understanding. We clashed at times; I regret that more than I can say.

But then I think of Dad’s toes. And how little they mattered. They probably hurt when he walked; he never mentioned it, though, and wouldn’t have cared. He had a heart attack; he also had a stroke. Neither slowed him down. Yes, he was tough. But more than that, he couldn’t let minor health problems get in the way. There was too much life to experience, too much of the world to see.

Within Mormonism, there’s a rhetorical stance in which we’re urged to reject the world and worldly values. I don’t altogether understand it. I love the world; I really do. I don’t mean that I love nature, or the planet, or pretty scenery. I mean, I like scenery too, but mostly, what I like about nature is keeping it out of my house. No, I love the world. I love art, and performance, and good theatre. I love opera, and musicals, and dance. I love comedians and comedy, musicians and music. I love movies. In fact, I won’t even say that I love good movies. I love all movies, indiscriminately. I think the world is amazing. I want to live now, on the earth today, with wifi and air conditioning and dentistry and antibiotics.

I remember Dad in a Priesthood class once. The lesson was on humility, and Dad raised his hand. And Dad said, “look, I’m an opera singer. I can’t do what I do unless I’m pretty sure that I’m good at it. I’m grateful that I’ve been blessed with certain talents. But I do have those talents. I’m a great singer. I have to know that, or I can’t do it.”

And so my Dad embraced the world. Oh, he didn’t like all of it. He never did understand rock music, for example, and was appalled by a lot of recent opera stagings that he saw. He’d call me from time to time, and he’d say ‘did you see that performance? It’s exactly the approach that you like. And you’re wrong, and here’s why.’ And we’d talk it out. It amused me, that he’d get on me for potentially liking a performance I hadn’t actually seen. What I now realize is that it probably amused him too.

But he was a wonderful Dad. He may not have always completely understood me, but he never stopped trying, and he never stopped loving me, and he never stopped telling me how much he cared. And I never stopped loving him. Heavenly Father gave me Roy Samuelsen, as a mentor, teacher, father and friend. I am so immensely grateful. And miss him more than I can possibly say.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Roy Samuelsen, 1933-2017

Leave a Reply