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Oakhurst resident Harold Waksdal traces family history back to 13th century

Harold Waksdal holds the story of his life, which has a cover photo of Harold in his younger years while serving in the U.S. Air Force during the early 1950s. In late 2016, he and his daughter, Suzanne Loughlin, participated in the Central Valley Honor Flight.
Harold Waksdal holds the story of his life, which has a cover photo of Harold in his younger years while serving in the U.S. Air Force during the early 1950s. In late 2016, he and his daughter, Suzanne Loughlin, participated in the Central Valley Honor Flight. Sierra Star

Even though Harold (Hal) Waksdal had the desire for six decades, he simply didn’t have the time needed to do his genealogy justice. The idea of researching his family history was sparked in 1956 when Harold visited his father’s bedridden cousin, Edvard, in Norway.

“Because he had nothing else to do, Edvard’s hobby was to gather genealogical history,” Harold said, “so he provided me with a lot of detailed information on my father’s side. I also received a lot of history on my mother’s side from my cousin, Ingebjorg Johnsen, who still lives in Vaksdal, Norway.”

Although Harold was enthused and immediately began asking family for photos, the information laid untouched over the years, as he busied himself with work and supporting his family, leaving him little energy for much else.

Then came retirement. After leaving the U.S. Forest Service in 1981, he had more time to delve into the past. However, to supplement his retirement income, Harold took another direction instead, obtaining his real estate license and working as a realtor and then appraiser until 2013.

That’s the year he finally became serious about his family history. New to the hobby, he first created a neatly organized but cumbersome chart with at least 150 names. Once he began writing his life’s story in earnest in 2016, Harold naturally gravitated toward computerizing text and photos, a process that has taken him about 18 months.

Harold’s story

An Oakhurst resident, Harold was born Jan. 30, 1931. His father Einar immigrated through Ellis Island from Vaksdal, Norway aboard The Mauretania on Aug. 24, 1923, and his mother, Irene came to the states in 1925.

“My father’s name was Knutson, but when he left Norway, he changed it to the name of the town which was a common practice for immigrants,” Harold explained. “When he got to Ellis Island, an official decided to change the ‘V’ in Vaksdal to a ‘W.’ Because my father didn’t want to rock the boat, he didn’t argue, so his last name became Waksdal.”

There’s a story told by Harold’s cousin about how Einar and Irene came to be husband and wife. Initially Irene had a serious relationship with a boyfriend in Vaksdal. But her father, Johannes (Anderson), didn’t like him much so he purchased a ticket to America for his daughter. First though, Johannes asked Einar, who was living in California at the time, if he was still interested in Irene, Einar said yes, and the rest is “family history.”

Raised in Oakland, Harold grew to love the outdoors because of regular camping trips with other Norwegian immigrants. “We would go to Herring Creek, and the parents would spread a blanket in the creek and the kids would wade down ... forcing trout into the blanket.” As a Boy Scout, he spent summers in Yosemite, which was a big factor in his decision to later choose forestry as an occupation.

At 20, after finding himself in danger of being drafted, he joined the Air National Guard and attended radio operators school, which meant learning Morse code. Throughout his enlistment, he sat at a typewriter with ear phones listening to Morse code for six hours a day, six days a week.

Following his discharge in April 1953, Harold attended a U.C. forestry summer camp near Quincy, and then obtained his Bachelors of Science in forestry from the University of California at Berkeley in 1956. His first assignment was in the Lake Valley District of the Eldorado National Forest at South Lake Tahoe, where he met his future wife, Phyllis. They were married Feb. 14, 1960.

That same year, the newlyweds were transferred to Big Creek in the Sierra National Forest, where he worked in timber management, and Phyllis worked as a substitute teacher at Big Creek Elementary School.

While there, Harold was dispatched to fight the Harlow Fire of 1961, known as one of the fastest spreading wildfires ever recorded in California history. This fire created a firestorm that burned as much as 175 acres per minute, and swept through more than 18,000 acres in just two hours.

“At one point, my crew and I went up to Miami Lookout and watched the fire roll through Mariposa County, then Nipinnawasee and Ahwahnee,” Harold recalled. “It was just too dangerous to fight .. all we could do was get out of its way.”

Five years later, the couple transferred to Oakhurst, where Phyllis taught fifth-graders at Oakhurst Elementary School and Harold worked in recreation, permits, range management and wildlife. His extra-curricular activities included volunteering as an emergency medical technician and driver for Sierra Ambulance for 18 years (beginning in the late 1960s), and serving as president and secretary of the Lions Club in 1976.

In digging deep into his family history, Harold learned what he basically expected he would, but for one ruler going back to the end of the Viking era. He was surprised to discover that he was a descendent of Haakon V Magnusson - king of Norway from 1299 to 1319. While he found the information he needed on Haakon through Wikipedia, he did try another avenue - ancestors.com - in an attempt to garner as much history as he could. However, he said the only thing he uncovered at that site was that his relatives were Eastern European. Even so, he added that the site may be useful to others.

Harold believes in gathering family history before it’s lost, so that there’s some kind of record for younger generations to build upon. He has sent copies of the information he has carefully organized to family members, including his children, Suzanne Loughlin and Scott.

“They were happy to have something to share with generations not yet born, and were kind of amazed at all the details I had,” Harold said. “I just wanted to make a family history before I die ... before all the information I have is lost forever.”

According to USA Today, genealogy websites are the second highest most visited internet sites, and the second most popular hobby in the country, with gardening topping the list. Both are enjoyed by the Baby Boomer generation, who now at retirement age, can simply hit a few keys, thanks to the internet, to research family history while sitting comfortably at home.

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