A tribute to my father

An important form of rhetoric in public and everyday life is the eulogy. I cannot help but offer a public eulogy on this occasion and I welcome your responses to its content and form.  I hope it is a fitting and educational tribute to share in this venue.

photo of Vic Harvonen

Harvonen, Vikke (Victor)

Vic Harvonen (my father) passed away gently on Dec 1st, 2010 after a long struggle with emphysema.

Vic had a kind heart, a simple sense of humor, and continually shared photos and memories of his family and life experiences.  The following details have been largely reconstructed from his stories.

Vikke, his mother, and a friend

Vic was born in 1925 and raised in Karelia, then part of Finland.  He grew up in poverty, his well-educated mother having fled from Russia to Karelia during the revolution.  His father was murdered before he was born (it was suspected that he was mugged and his body was never found).  His mother subsequently married a farm laborer and had four more children.  Vic and his half-siblings grew up in a small rustic cabin. 

From Vic’s memories, the father was an alcoholic and abusive, and did not let him eat at the table with his half-siblings.  Because Vic did not have good clothing, he could not enter churches to worship, but he sat on a nearby hill to enjoy the organ music. He read his mother’s Bible.  He excelled at school as much as he was able, especially in language.  The family struggled to survive, and sometimes he resorted to eating a raw potato.  He caught his own fish by lake-fishing in the region.  A favorite Christmas memory was being given an orange to eat.

Vic entered the Finnish-Russian war as a bicycle messenger at the age of 14 and later became a soldier on the front lines.  He was discharged after receiving shell shock, being one of 3 men out of 300 who survived a devastating attack.  After the war, his family broke up.  Karelia was given to Russia and the family became refugees once more.  His mother died, and his stepfather took his own life. His younger half-siblings grew up in separate foster homes while Vic tried to make his way in the world.

Vic led a varied and colorful life.  He played the role of an extra in several Finnish movies.  He later lived in Stockholm working as a dishwasher in an upscale restaurant, and became a sailor who travelled Europe and South America.  For almost a year he became a diplomatic messenger for the Finnish ambassador to Italy, whose wife befriended him.  They treated him well, even sending him on a tour to see St. Peter’s in the Vatican.

Vic lived in Detroit 1948-9 working at Ford.   He then decided to go on a bus trip by himself to Miami, which was an unwise move in the 1960s since he did not know English very well.  He was arrested on the suspicion of being a drug mule, and spent 3 months in jail, finally released when they realized he was innocent.  He received an apology but no compensation, and was invited to attend US citizenship classes. When it was discovered Vic did not have proper paperwork to stay in the US, he was deported.  He lived in Sweden briefly, and then immigrated to Montreal with his sister Kirsti, and lived there for 8 years.  Friends obtained him a work permit to move to Seattle, Washington.

He lived as a laborer in Seattle for some time, and met his future wife as she was at a Scandinavian lodge dance because she was interested in folk dance.  Francia Scheiber was 11 years younger, an actively performing modern dancer who was then obtaining her college degree at Reed College.  She fell in love with him as she learned from him about Finnish culture, language and music.  They married in 1962.  In 1966, they lived for seven months in Finland while Vic unsuccessfully tried to establish a living there.  They eventually settled in Edmonton, AB in January 1967 to start a family.

In Edmonton, Vic worked over 20 years as a janitor for Edmonton Telephones, raised two daughters, and enjoyed trout fishing and camping in Alberta and BC with his family.  He retrofitted the interior of two vans by himself and they became camping vans for his family.

Through decades of correspondence with friends in Finland, especially his friend Pekka who lives in Pori, Finland, he compiled a vast collection of Finnish folk music as well as music other genres and was commonly found at his recording station with many pieces of hi-fi equipment, reel-to-reel tapes and cassettes, and later, CDs.

Growing up in a multicultural household inspired in both his daughters a strong interest in music, culture, and language.  Although Vic was raised in poverty and never earned more than grade 8 in formal education, he was self-educated and read widely at the public library as a young man.  He had excellent Finnish communication skills and kept them sharp by reading Finnish magazines and doing crossword puzzles.

The elder daughter (Lea) earned honors throughout school, and learned to play accordion and recorder, and sung in church choirs.  She and her husband work in financial services areas. The younger daughter (Tania) also taught herself the accordion and recorded a home-made album of Finnish folk songs; she played flute, trombone, and sang in a Renaissance choir. Tania even danced on figure skates to the tangos and waltzes she learned to love, passing CFSA gold-level tests in Dance.  She later became a teacher of writing and professor of communication.  Both daughters learned from Vic to love puns and to be entertained by linguistic idioms and cultural assumptions.

Vic learned in 1995 that he had emphysema and immediately quit smoking, but the damage had been done.  In 2005 he required oxygen therapy at home. Vic’s devoted wife Francia was his main caregiver, working constantly to manage his increasing health needs.  She granted Vic the immeasurable comfort of living at home with her until his final breath.  His last word was “sleep.”

He will be fondly remembered by his wife Francia (Fran) and his daughters Lea Davis and Tania Smith, who live in Calgary.  He is survived by half-siblings Pertti, Kirsti, and Marjaleena, and their children.  A Memorial Service will be held on Dec. 06, 2010 at 1:00PM at Emmanuel Community Church, 6505 – 140 Ave NW with Rev. Walter Opmeer officiating.

Feel free to leave a comment here, or leave a comment for my mom and sister and I via the Edmonton Journal Obituary .


11 thoughts on “A tribute to my father

  1. It’s amazing to me that people who have had such difficult lives can have such joy on their faces. Your father looks like one such person. No wonder you are so strong, Tania. You have a wonderful heritage of determination, of finding joy in life, of seeking to grow, of giving back to the community. Sending a cyberhug and a prayer to all.

  2. This is a wonderful tribute, Tania — it brings him back to life as a man of strength, integrity and determination in difficult times.

    May your family sustain itself in caring and comfort at this time; may his extraordinary resilience live on in you.

    Cyberhugs from us, too.

  3. Interesting and impressive piece of the family history. I wish all the family strength thru the times of sorrow. Feeling sad to hear about your loss but I wish he has the peace now.

    Memorial service will be hold on the Independency Day of Finland. We use to light two candles beside the windows that day. This year I will light the candle for Vic.

  4. Thank you very much Margo, Marcia & Irvin and Pia for your comments. They are very much appreciated. Yes it is very appropriate that the memorial service is on the Independence Day of Finland. I’ve just updated the tribute with photos that I found in my father’s collection.

  5. Hi Tania,
    The Finnish community of Edmonton is very saddened to learn of the death of your father. He has many friends here and will always be remembered for his charm, sense of humour, and love of music. His contributions to our society are many and go back a long time.
    The Finnish Society website has an In Memoriam page and I have added your father to it. As the obituary had very few details, I took a few from your blog above, as well as a colour photo.
    Please let me know if this is OK with you. If not, I can change or remove it.

    Ulla Jordan

  6. A remarkable life, Tania, and an immense loss for you all. He must have been wonderfully proud of you and your sister.

    I’m sorry to learn you have lost him.

    (Also impressed to learn you play the trombone.)

  7. Tania: This is a beautiful and compelling tribute, and does you and your father credit. I am sad for your loss, but also certain that your family are pulling together to celebrate your father’s incredible life.

  8. Thank you very much Ulla for your kind message. It’s good to hear from you; I remember you from the Finnish singing group. Our family was very very happy to see so many Finnish friends come to the memorial service on Monday, and we are also very thankful for the messages some have posted on this blog and the obituary’s site. Yes please feel free to copy any of the details from this blog entry and post it there. Thanks for spreading the word about this sad news as well as the many interesting historical facts about Vikke’s life.

  9. What a life full of so much to overcome. And he did. I’m not sure that people are built with this same resilience and determination anymore.
    Wishing your family peace and strength as you say good-bye.

  10. Interesting start to your father’s life. I wonder how his mother picked his wicked step-father. I also found it interesting when you acknowledged in such an offhand way that a trip without the ability to speak the language can be a dangerous thing. The problems should be obvious but it is usually considered to be adventurous rather than dangerous.

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