A Song of Norway on Columbus Day

The value of tenacity

By Gabe Pressman
|  Monday, Oct 12, 2009  |  Updated 8:14 PM EDT
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What Does Columbus Mean To You?

Gabe Pressman

Vera Pressman

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What Does Columbus Mean To You?

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The Columbus Day Parade has a special meaning for me. It was the day in 1967 when I met my wife, Vera.

She was a beautiful, young Norwegian woman who had just arrived in this city -- and she was very curious about what was going on. She heard about the big parade on Fifth Avenue and that the two leading politicians of New York, Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Mayor John Lindsay, would be in the reviewing stand on 67th Street and Fifth Avenue.

So, determined to see the leaders of New York, she took a bus to Madison and 67th and managed to flirt her way past the barricades and police lines right up to the reviewing stand on Fifth Avenue.

My camera crew and I were finishing up our story. I had exhaustively interviewed many of the major politicians who traditionally stroll up Fifth Avenue on this day to greet their constituents. The Irish officials had high praise for this Italian hero, Columbus -- the Italian politicians would do the same for the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. That’s the New York way.

But on this day my crew then spotted this curious girl who had no press card but had made herself quite at home in the VIP area. They invited her to lunch.

Vera accepted and, a few minutes later, the three-person crew and my future wife were getting into a car about a block away. I knocked on the back window -- and Vera rolled it down. What’s your name again? In a strong Norwegian accent [which she has lost over the last four decades], she replied: “Vera Olsen.”

“And where do you work?” I asked.

“Gotaas-Larsen,” she said, explaining that it was a Norwegian shipping company.

The next day, I kept thinking about her. Somehow, she brought to mind a Broadway musical called “Song of Norway,” featuring the melodies of composer Edward Grieg. The heroine was a young girl, a milkmaid, I believe, and she was seen in the mountains and fjords of that spectacular country. That show entranced me.

That next day, I was on assignment covering a story somewhere, when I saw a cigar store. In those days, we had no cell phones but there were phone booths and phone directories all over the city. I looked up Larsen -- but there was no listing.

An hour later, frustrated that I couldn’t find the company where she worked, I stopped again at a candy store somewhere in Manhattan and found another phone book [whatever happened to phone books?]. This time, I looked for Gotaas-Larsen as a compound last name -- and I found the company and the milkmaid I was looking for!

As they say, the rest is history. Vera and I found each other. Ultimately, we were married. This year’s parade marks the 42d anniversary of our meeting and we’ll celebrate with a couple of glasses of champagne -- and some reminiscing about the past. Maybe we’ll play some Grieg recordings.

Christopher Columbus had one dominant quality -- tenacity. He wouldn’t give up. Vera and I, back then, were tenacious too.

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