A former Seattle Public Schools administrator known for his calm diplomacy during the emotional turmoil of desegregation, and for his leadership in the city’s Norwegian community after his retirement, has died at age 90.
Olaf Kvamme died in his sleep on Sept. 27 at the Horizon House retirement home in Seattle, said his son Steven Kvamme.
“When we were kids he always did everything that he could to have us broaden our experiences and see different cultures,” Steven Kvamme said.
Mr. Kvamme’s own life experiences included a deep appreciation of Japan and of his native Norway. His ability to understand other points of view served him well during his 38-year career in the Seattle school district, which began in 1949 when he started teaching at Coleman Elementary. He was an elementary-school vice principal and principal before joining the central office, where he worked on special projects and eventually became an assistant superintendent.
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He finished his career as the school district’s lobbyist in Olympia.
The Municipal League of Seattle and King County named Mr. Kvamme the King County Outstanding Public Employee of the Year in 1981 for his work in education.
“He was one of the finest administrators I ever worked with,” said former Superintendent Robert Nelson, who retired in 1986. “He had an ability to maintain a calm when times were tough.”
Mr. Kvamme’s abilities as a peacemaker and mediator made him particularly valuable during the 1970s when the district was coping with high emotions surrounding busing, desegregation, declining enrollment and building closures.
“He was a guy you could send out on any assignment and he would come back successfully,” said Nelson. “I thought the world of him and I hated to see him go.”
Born in Norway in 1923, Mr. Kvamme immigrated with his family to Tacoma when he was 2 months old. He attended schools there through third grade before his family moved to Fife. During his school years in Fife, he worked on Japanese-American farms in the area.
“Many of his classmates were Japanese and he was disheartened by their involuntary evacuation to internment camps during the war,” according to Mary T. Henry’s profile of Mr. Kvamme on historylink.org, the online encyclopedia of state history. “While they were interned in Puyallup, before their move to Minidoka (an Idaho internment camp), he would ride his bicycle to the fairgrounds to visit some of them.”
Mr. Kvamme graduated from Fife High School and in the middle of earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of Washington, he was drafted into the Army. He completed language training in Japanese and served in Army Intelligence in Japan, choosing to stay a year after the war ended in 1945 “as an interrogator and a proofreader of the daily intelligence summary issued from General Douglas MacArthur’s office,” according to historylink.org.
Mr. Kvamme eventually earned bachelor’s degrees from both Pacific Lutheran University and the UW, as well as a master’s degree from the UW.
He taught social studies at Kapowsin High School in Pierce County in 1948 before joining Seattle Public Schools the following year.
After retiring in 1987, he emerged as a leader in Seattle’s Norwegian community as board member, president and volunteer for the Nordic Heritage Museum.
“I didn’t become Norwegian until I retired,” he told Seattle Times columnist Jerry Large in 2003. He also served as chair of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Committee and was a charter member of the advisory board for the UW’s Department of Scandinavian Studies.
In 1996 he received the St. Olav’s Medal from the King of Norway, in recognition of “outstanding services rendered in connection with the spreading of information about Norway abroad and for strengthening the bonds between expatriate Norwegians and their home country.”
Mr. Kvamme was preceded in death by his wife, Aileen Trostad Kvamme, in 1982. He is survived by sons Steven Kvamme, of Tacoma, and Marvin Kvamme and his wife, Lee Gresko, of Mountlake Terrace; daughters Jan Kvamme and her husband, Stephen Conway, of Seattle, and Kay Plommer and her husband, Douglas, of Seattle; six grandchildren; seven great-grandchildren; five siblings; numerous nieces and nephews; and his friend Mary Henry.
A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Oct. 20 at Seattle First Baptist Church, 1111 Harvard Ave., Seattle.
John Higgins: 206-464-3145 or firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter @jhigginsST