He's donned a Homburg hat and gloves to greet the king, forged connections between Boeing and Braathens, sat beside countless bedsides and...

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He’s donned a Homburg hat and gloves to greet the king, forged connections between Boeing and Braathens, sat beside countless bedsides and issued more visas than he can count.

For 40 years Thomas Stang has been Seattle’s honorary consul of Norway, continuing a family tradition going back more than 100 years to when his great-uncle started the city’s first Norwegian Consulate.

But now Stang is retiring from the unpaid position.

For years, Stang has reported to the eighth-floor office at 1402 Third St., which houses the Norwegian Consulate, Stang Travel Service and Stang’s law office. Throughout the day, Stang and his wife, Nancy, juggle consulate inquiries — Americans asking about immigrating to Norway, or Norwegians wanting to do business here — with selling airline tickets to Oslo and setting up wills and estates.

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Even though the law practice is Stang’s full-time job, he squeezes in meetings with the Seattle consular corps, keeps abreast of news in Norway and sometimes helps track down missing relatives in Norway. Once, he found the heirs of a deceased Norwegian citizen — who lived and died in Seattle but had distant family in the old country.

In retirement, he plans to use the boxes of records to sort and catalog the history of Norwegians in Washington and Idaho — the area he serves — to create a research archive.

When Stang’s great uncle, Thomas Kolderup, started the consul in 1906, Norwegians were the largest ethnic group in the Puget Sound region and dominated the area’s marine and fishing industries. It was a time when disagreements at sea were settled with fists, shipboard working conditions were poor and accidental deaths common. The consul’s duties reflected as much.

Kolderup wrote reports about accidents aboard Norwegian ships, tended to the hospitalized, notified next of kin and dealt with immigration issues.

He served as consul until his death in 1932, when Einar Beyer was appointed and Thomas Stang’s father, Christen Stang, became vice consul.

Christen Stang became consul in 1941. By then, shipboard working conditions were better, but consular duties still largely involved marine issues because many sailors were Norwegian citizens. If they were injured, fell ill or were accused of a crime, they needed representation.

Born in Seattle, Thomas Stang grew up speaking Norwegian, attended school in Norway, spent much of his life traveling there and married a Norwegian. He eventually became vice consul, but he never planned on taking over from his father.

Stang was a King County deputy prosecutor when his father died in 1967. He left the Prosecutor’s Office to work for Stang Travel Service and was officially appointed consul by the king of Norway.

Stang had no sooner taken over when he was called to Harborview Medical Center to see a Norwegian sailor who was in critical condition after being hit by a truck. Stang was devastated when informed that the young man later died.

“Since then, I’ve sent a lot of bodies home,” he says.

When a Norwegian citizen dies here, Stang makes the repatriation arrangements.

On the job

Stang was still new to his job when he received notice that Norway’s King Olav was coming to Seattle for a visit. He asked for advice from Scandinavian Airlines’ protocol adviser and was told to wear gloves and a Homburg.

Many official royal visits would follow, including King Olav again in 1975; his successor, King Harald, and Queen Sonja in 1995; and Prince Haakon in 1999.

Interspersed among them were many unofficial visits, in which the royals simply passed through, including Princess Martha Louise’s visit to promote her book in 2005. On that visit the Stangs played chauffeur, taking the princess and her infant daughter to Poulsbo for a book signing.

While royal visits continue to be part of consular duties, marine and fishing issues over the years declined, Stang says.

Seattle used to have offices for Norwegian shipping companies, internationally prominent Norwegian marine architects and lots of fishermen. But the fish traps Norwegians favored were outlawed.

When the 1987 Norwegian International Ship Register went into effect, making it possible for ships to be registered in foreign ports and sail with foreign and lesser-paid crews, it put an end to the era of Norwegian mariners in Puget Sound.

As one area declined, another increased. Boeing recruited engineers from Norway in the 1960s, and since then Boeing planes have been sold to SAS and Norway’s Braathens Airlines. Stang was heavily involved in smoothing the way for the international transactions.

His background in law, his ability to speak Norwegian and English, knowledge of both cultures and of whom to talk to and when, helped make the usually complex title transfers and liens on jets go quicker and easier.

A “remarkable record”

At one of a number of retirement parties honoring him, Dågfinn Melby from Boeing thanked him for helping in the company’s dealings with Braathens.

Stang’s boss, Consul General Are-Jostein Norheim in San Francisco, also praised him for his “remarkable record of service,” at such a high level that over the generations, the Seattle consulate has come to have more authority than other consuls.

Stang, for example, can issue visas while many other honorary consuls cannot.

It’s a role that Vice Consul Kim Nesselquist will assume upon approval from the U.S. State Department.

Stang has received two of Norway’s highest civic honors: the Saint Olav Medal and the Royal Norwegian Order of Saint Olav.

Behind the ivory door at the Norwegian Consulate there are photos of kings, commemorative paperweights, Norwegian flags and faded travel posters.

“I don’t want to retire,” Stang says, as he sits behind a desk in a room stuffed with at least 40 years worth of boxes and files: life stories — his and others’ — tucked among the pages.

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or nbartley@seattletimes.com