Arnold Bodtker, then president of DAHS, tapped Signe Betsinger to lead the committee that created the forerunner of the Museum of Danish America.
The Danish American community lost one of its leading advocates with the Nov. 3 death of Signe Tronborg Nielsen Betsinger of Saint Paul, Minnesota. She was 93.
Betsinger led a Danish American Heritage Society exploratory committee’s work in the early 1980s to identify a community in which to locate a national museum celebrating Danish immigration to America. (Arnold Bodtker, a founder and president of DAHS, appointed Betsinger to the committee.)
The committee selected Elk Horn, Iowa, in 1983 for the Danish Immigrant Museum, now known as the Museum of Danish America.
Betsinger served as the museum board’s first president from 1983 to 1989. She served on the DAHS board from 1998-2013.
John Mark Nielsen, DAHS president, came to know Betsinger well when he served on the exploratory committee and later as a museum board member and executive director.
“She was an elegant woman, poised, perceptive and pragmatic with a vision that inspired confidence,’’ he said. “She was and is MoDA’s grand dame and founding mother.’’
Betsinger wrote for the museum’s 25th anniversary in 2008 that it was an ambitious project.
“However, we believed it was a matter of ‘now or never.’ The early Danish immigrants were already in their 80s and 90s; we feared that unless we captured their stories immediately, their history would slip away from us. With their rich experiences and artifacts to illustrate their stories, they were the link to Danish immigration in the last quarter of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century.”
Bestinger wrote that she had great expectations for the museum.
“Whenever I am in Elk Horn and drive up the crest of the hill immediately west of town, turn down the curved driveway leading to the museum, and look out over the rolling green hills, I ask myself: Is it Denmark? No, it is Elk Horn, Iowa, and there before me lies the dream.”
The museum celebrated its 40th anniversary at functions in Elk Horn and across the country this year.
Betsinger, right, with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and Judy Andersen (mistress of ceremonies) at the museum groundbreaking ceremony in 1988
Betsinger was born to Ellen (Jorgensen) and William Nielsen in Estherville, Iowa, on Aug. 2, 1930. After spending her childhood years is Estherville and Ringsted, Iowa, she pursued her undergraduate study at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa, and Iowa State University in Ames. From 1953 to
1957, she served in the U.S. Army Medical Specialist Corps, where she trained as an occupational therapist, and then served two years as a registered therapist at Valley Forge Army Hospital in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. After her honorable discharge as a first lieutenant, she entered the University of Minnesota to begin graduate work. She taught high school home economics for two years at Cambridge, Minnesota, and Grantsburg, Wisconsin.
Betsinger continued her graduate work at the University of Minnesota, where she received her doctorate and taught courses in design. In 1971, she was appointed head of the home economics department at the University of Vermont, and later became director School of Home Economics. She eventually returned to the University of Minnesota and served as assistant dean and associate dean in the College of Home Economics. She was assistant director of the Minnesota Agriculture Experiment Station for 11 years.
In her academic career, she devoted a significant amount of her time to working with scientists engaged in regional research in agriculture and home economics. She received the Distinguished Alumna Award from Grand View University in 1989. She also served on the Board of Trustees for Grand View University, and the Board of Trustees of the Vermont Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Betsinger’s mother dedicated a brick at Iowa State’s Plaza of Heroines in her daughter’s honor in 1995. The inscription reads: “From the day she was born, my daughter has brought joy to her father and me. She has grown like a flower, unfolding from a bud to full bloom and beautiful. Although she has accomplished much in her life — completed a Ph.D. held leadership positions, received many honors — what is most noteworthy is her quiet, genuine dedication to being helpful to those about her.”
Betsinger was buried Nov. 8 with military honors at Swan Lake Township Cemetery in rural Gruver, Iowa. She requested memorials to Trinity Lutheran Church in Estherville, the Museum of Danish America, or to a charity of choice.
© 2021, Danish American Heritage Society