People of Willmar: Earl & Betty Knutson

How is it that a New London High School student of the 1950’s would come across a war surplus radio and it would lead to a Scottish- Irish woman from Morristown, NJ, being President in the local Sons of Norway chapter? It is a fascinating unfolding.

Earl Knutson was born in 1936 about 20 miles North of Willmar, just west of Knutson’s Lake. He recalls the 1950’s at New London High being “No Sweat,” and much like the television show, “Happy Days.” While in the science lab at the New London High School, he noticed something in the back of the cabinet. It was a war surplus radio. When he inquired about it, he was told that it was used in the Physics class. Interested in that radio, he registered for Physics. A happenstance that took him down his road of life.

Upon graduation, Earl found himself asking “Now what?” He inquired at the Telephone Company, and the man he talked to encouraged him to go to college first. Unsure of a path, Earl took a job helping a farmer harvest by Sunburg, MN. A car pulled up while he was harvesting. It was a man from Concordia College in Moorhead, MN who asked him to attend college at Concordia. That man changed the course of his life.

Earl accepted the invitation and really enjoyed his college career. He discovered that he had an aptitude for physics. He would go on to earn his Master’s Degree in Physics at the University of Minnesota. As he reached the conclusion of his graduate program, he jokes that he decided he would never become rich and famous in physics.

Earl took a job in the General Mills Mechanical Division which was later bought out by Litton Industries. They did Research and Development for Government Contracts for Army Biological Warfare.

Earl spent five years there. The Vietnam War was now going strong and the military budget for research was tight. People were starting to get laid off. Earl decided to go back to school with a specific interest in Airborne Particles. There was a lab at the U of M, in the Mechanical Engineering Department that dealt with the filtration and the cleaning of air. Earl applied and spent the next four years earning a Ph.D. The machine that Earl designed for his thesis was commercialized; more than 100 were manufactured and are still in use today for use in measuring airborne particles. He went beyond the concept for the machine, and specifically established the mathematical theory and measurements for it. He believes the inclusion of the specific mathematics led to the success of the machine being created and used. He finished his thesis and oral exam in October of 1971. During his time in the PH. D program, Earl was married and welcomed two daughters. A job in Chicago, at the Illinois Institute of Technology – Research Institute was his next step.

In 1975, he began what would end up being a 20 year career with the Environmental Measurements Laboratory – A Division of the US Department of Energy. They made their home in Morristown, NJ and Earl took the train into the SoHo District of Manhattan to work.

In 1995, the government was in a downsizing mode. Earl was 58 at the time, and noted that his advisor at the U of M had died at 58. He decided it was time to get on with it. He applied for an early retirement option being offered, and it was granted in 1995.

After Earl’s retirement, he had time to delve into genealogy. He and his sister traveled throughout North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Canada to collect stories and pictures. They compiled their findings into a book and published it in 1999. It was ready in time for an International family reunion that was held in the Willmar area. Fifteen family members traveled from Norway to attend the reunion.

Earl was united in marriage to Betty Barnes on April 8, 2000. Betty was a lifelong New Jersey resident. On a clear day, you could see the New York skyline from the home she had lived in since she was three years old. Betty studied at Adrian College in Michigan and Colorado State University. She was a furniture buyer for a department store in New Jersey before entering the world of finance. She went on to work in banking for 20 years and cared for her elderly parents for about 15 years.

In 2002, Earl and Betty decided it was time to sell Betty’s family home and start a new chapter by returning to Earl’s roots. The discovery of the log cabin on old Knutson land tweaked their interest. Today, the property is owned by the Norway Lake Lutheran Historical Association, which had already constructed a replica of an Old log church built in 1868 on land donated by Earl’s great-grandfather Ole Knudson. Church services are held in the replica Old Log Church on Saturday nights from the middle of June to August.

This cabin had been constructed by Ole Knudson in 1861. Over the years, the farm prospered, the home was added onto, both upward and outward. He took a photo of his home and traveled back to Norway, showing his success, and encouraging others to come as well. That home stayed in the family for 100 years. It was eventually sold and after many years of sitting empty, a restoration of the old farmhouse was started. As they removed the old siding, they discovered that the original log home was still standing within the structure.

A warm and gentle man, Earl is reluctant to share his educational and career accomplishments. This white haired Norwegian with an easy smile can often be found walking around Willmar. Unexpectedly, he is a published, accomplished, and recognized pioneer in his field. In 2003, he was honored by the American Association for Aerosol Research. Recently, he was included in a “Pioneers in Aerosols” project. To date, a paper he published in 1975 has been cited more than any other reference in the field.

Earl could have never guessed where that Army surplus radio would lead him. Betty envisioned retiring to Cape Cod. She now has a vibrant and active life in Willmar, MN, where she is serving as President of the Sons of Norway and has served for a decade as Clerk of Session of the Willmar Presbyterian Church. Life unfolds. In the case of Earl and Betty Knutson, it unfolds remarkably.

– Marn Steinwand

– Photos by Brianna Norby