REFLECTIONS ON FINNISH-AMERICANS

REPORTER: TOMI HINKKANEN DATE: April 8th, 2013

-From snowbirds to oddbirds, there’s a Finn for every occasion.

Finns gathered on the grounds of Hauli Huvila near Reedley, California in the early 1970's.

Finns gathered on the grounds of Hauli Huvila near Reedley, California in the early 1970’s.

There are approximately 750,000 Finns and people of Finnish heritage living in the United States today, according to official statistics. It is an understatement to say that it is a very heterogeneous group of people scattered across a vast geographical area. There are Finns living in every state of the union, as well as a handful of pockets with greater numbers, such as in Minnesota, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Florida’s Lantana – Lake Worth and the Bay Area. Also big cities like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles – San Diego have sizable Finnish populations. 006 LA JUHANNUS 2012 In a totally unscientific way, I have identified the following six main groups of Finns in the U.S. and  given each group a nickname:

1) ORIGINAL FINNS: Those later generation Finns, whose ancestors immigrated to the U.S. between the late 1800’s and 1920’s.

2) POST-WAR FINNS:  Finns, who immigrated after WW2 in the 1940’s, ‘50’s and ‘60’s.

3) SNOWBIRDS: Florida Finns, who arrived between the 1960’s and ‘80’s.

4) ODD BIRDS: People like myself, who came to this country between the 1980’s and ‘90’s during low immigration years from Finland.

5) OFFICIAL FINNS: The staffs of the embassy in Washington DC and consulate generals in New York and LA plus other governmental agencies, such as Tekes, Finpro, etc.

6) COMPUTER NERDS: The latest crop to land into the country are the IT-people. They immigrated in the late 1990’s to present day. As you can surmise, these six groups of Finns are very different from one another. Each have some connecting characteristics.

The Simpsons producer Bonita Pietila hails from Minnesota. She grew up in a totally Finnish family but was never taught the language.

The Simpsons producer Bonita Pietila originally hails from U.P. Michigan. She grew up in a totally Finnish family but was never taught the language.

ORIGINAL FINNS:  As a rule, they don’t speak Finnish, even though I have run into such Finnish speaking Finns in the oddest of places – like in rural Montana and a mountain village in Utah. Amazingly, also many older U.P. Finns still speak it, though many of them have never even visited Finland. These Finns are as American as Apple Pie and you would never be able to distinguish them from the rest of the population.

Taisto Liski with his alter ego. Taisto immigrated to the U.S. in 1967, built a successful car mechanic business and retired after 30 years. He lives with his wife Helka in Signal Hill, California.

Taisto Liski with his alter ego. Taisto immigrated to the U.S. in 1967, built a successful car mechanic business and retired after 30 years. He lives with his wife Helka in Signal Hill, California.

POST-WAR FINNS: They not only speak Finnish but also retain many of their Finnish habits and traditions to date. I have friends who belong to this group. Visiting their house is like going back to Finland. This generation often worked in blue collar occupations, such as maids, mechanics and construction workers and earned their living the hard way. This aging group is disappearing fast. Their children and grandchildren are now adults and usually do not speak the language.

Finntimes publisher Tomi Hinkkanen with singer Eino Grön in Pasadena, California. Eikka has lived in Florida for over 30 years with his wife marjatta. He still entertains people on both sides of the Atlantic.

Finntimes publisher Tomi Hinkkanen with singer Eino Grön in Pasadena, California. Eikka has lived in Florida for over 30 years with his wife Marjatta. He still entertains people on both sides of the Atlantic.

SNOWBIRDS: They live in Florida and are mainly retirees, although there are also some entrepreneurs and a few very wealthy business people in this group. They of course speak Finnish but oftentimes the retirees’  English skills are poor. Therefore they tend to stick together and organize activities among themselves.

Jouni Passi's Burbank Spa & Garden is a luxurious massage parlor in Burbank, California, frequented by Hollywood stars.

Jouni Passi’s Burbank Spa & Garden is a luxurious massage parlor in Burbank, California, frequented by Hollywood stars.

ODD BIRDS:  This group speaks Finnish, although those of them who don’t practice it, lose it. Oftentimes they tend to be female and married to an American spouse or divorced from one. They can be found across the country in a variety of occupations from governmental positions to private entrepreneurs. They blend in the rest of the population. Many of them never attend any Finnish events.

Kirsti Westphalen is the current Consul General in Los Angeles.

Kirsti Westphalen is the current Consul General in Los Angeles.

OFFICIAL FINNS: These government officials rotate in and out of the country every four years. Their language skills are excellent in Finnish, English as well as Swedish, they retain all their Finnish habits, build connections with Americans, oftentimes socialize with one another and after their time is up, move to the next country.

Niko Ruokosuo, CEO of P2S Media Group Inc., a photo sharing business.

Niko Ruokosuo, CEO of P2S Media Group Inc., a photo sharing business.

COMPUTER NERDS: They are mainly men, who bring along their families, highly educated, speak fluent Finnish and English and are employed in the high tech sector in high paying positions. Sometimes they are on an assignment but oftentimes end up staying in the country. They frequently travel between the U.S. and Finland and maintain close ties with their friends and family in the old country. These Finns can be found in California’s Silicon Valley, Dallas – Fort Worth and San Diego areas. These people tend to have families in which the wife stays at home with small children.

The shoe manufacturing mogul Sari Ratsula with husband jussi and son Aku in Orange County, California.

The shoe manufacturing mogul Sari Ratsula with husband Jussi and son Aku in Orange County, California.

Epilogue: Finnish-Americans hail from different eras, experiences and socio-economic backgrounds. Like all people, they are a sum of their genes, environment and experiences. Against all odds, many second, third and later generation Finnish-Americans retain surprisingly strong ties to their heritage. For them being Finnish is an inner journey to one self. Understanding their background helps understand themselves – their stubbornness, their quiet ways, their fondness for coffee. The present day Republic of Finland is a totally foreign country to them and in their festivals and gatherings they rather wish to remember Finland as it was in the days of their forefathers.

Actress Lisa Niemi, neé Haapaniemi, was born to a Finnish immigrant family in Texas.

Actress Lisa Niemi, neé Haapaniemi, was born to a Finnish immigrant family in Texas.

But it would be a grave mistake to dismiss them as merely American. They are as Finnish as members of any other Finnish group. Environment affects political views. You will find that a Finn living in a small Texas town is likely to be more conservative than a Finn living in Hollywood. The whole immigrant experience varies greatly between generations and individuals. Those hard-working original and post-war Finns got the full experience of what it is like to start from scratch. The IT-engineer hired by a Silicon Valley company directly from Espoo, Finland, not so much. But whatever the background, place, experience or generation, all of the above are Finns in the true meaning of the word. It is the task of Finntimes to try to bring all these various Finns together to celebrate our rich history and heritage.

A Finnish gathering in North Hollywood, California.

A Finnish gathering in North Hollywood, California.

DUAL CITIZEN GRÖN

DUAL CITIZEN GRÖN
REPORTER/PHOTOGRAPHER: TOMI HINKKANEN – LAKE WORTH, FL

EINO GRÖN by Tomi Hinkkanen

Singer Eino Grön has been a beloved Finnish icon for over 50 years. He recorded his first record in 1958 and never since faded from the music scene. Grön is especially well known for his renditions of evergreen tangos such as ‘The Walls Have Ears’. He is also known to embody the image of a working man.

There is a private side to Grön that the public hardly knows anything about. For 30 years he has been living his winters in tropical Florida where he and his wife Marjatta own a beautiful oceanfront home. We recently got together on his winter turf, when he was getting ready to release his latest album of pop standards.

We met at the Palm Beach Bakery Café, a meeting place for Finnish ex-pats. There are two tables on an outdoor patio. Women sit at their table and men at another. Here everybody knows Eino. He greets the locals with a smiley face.

“This is where we gather to talk about the topics of the day. We all have our own hobbies but we always have our siesta here. Out of the ovens of this bakery come some great, genuine Finnish food – most importantly rye bread, “Eino explains.

His musical journey began in Pori’s Reposaari, the island where he was born.

EINO GRÖN by Tomi Hinkkanen

“I sang a lot already at school. We had a band on the island. We performed at birthday parties and such. At the age of 16 I began traveling to nearby Pori to sing with orchestras.”

He wanted to make a record, but there was one thing that had to be taken care of first.

“I volunteered to do my military service early to get it out of the way. I served in the Turku naval station.”

It was in Turku where he met Toivo Kärki, the most famous Finnish pop composer and record producer of that time.

“He discovered me at the singing contest that he had organized there. I won and got to travel to Helsinki to record the song ‘Russian Tango’.

EINO GRÖN by Tomi Hinkkanen

Even though he got a six month record deal, nothing happened and Eino Grön grew restless. Then he got whiff of another singing competition, this time in Helsinki.

“Toivo Kärki was once again one of the judges. The other ones were the top singer of at that time, Olavi Virta and Seija Lampila. It went very well for me. I won the men’s foreign and domestic series, and even the audience vote!”

In the autumn of 1958, Eino Grön entered into a three-year contract with Finland’s leading record company, Music Fazer.

“The top female singer of the time, Laila Kinnunen, had recorded an Italian song ‘Maliziusella’. Since she was with a different record company, Fazer offered it to me. After that I recorded other Italian tunes, like ‘Marina’ and ‘Too Much Money’. I did many recordings in those three years.”

Grön formed his own quartet and started touring Finland.

“Those were fun times. I bought a 1952 Dodge, we packed our drums and bass on the car’s roof rack and off we went. On our longer gigs, we stayed at modest inns overnight.”

Finnish songwriter Juha Vainio, singer Eino Grön and singer Olavi Virta in 1965

The 1960s were the golden era of tango.

“In 1962 I participated as the Finnish contestant in the Baltic Sea Week Singing Competition in Rostock, East Germany where most European countries were being represented. The great 42-musician Leipzig Radio Orchestra accompanied us. It was definitely one of the highlights of my career.”

The climate of the’60’s favored traveling artists.

“Sports organizations gave concert organizers grants. They had built sports arenas that had a dance every Saturday night. Those venues could accommodate 1500-2000 people. There were over a thousand dancing halls in Finland back while now there are just about 200.”

EINO GRÖN by Tomi Hinkkanen

At the end of the decade, tango’s popularity waned.

“People grew tired of the tango because they played it everywhere. It was then that the guitar bands entered the picture. They had been previously playing as our warm up bands. They took the youth audience by storm, and as a result of that, the overall audience attendance took a downturn.”

Eino Grön was able to hang onto his career by expanding his repertoire.

“I believe I was able to continue my career due to my vocal skills and versatility. I can work as big band soloist, perform Jazzy tunes, or go to a church and hold a gospel concert. My repertoire ranges from old standards to present day hits.”

One cannot help observing that,while Eino Grön’s career has endured, some of his old colleagues’ careers were cut short by alcoholism. The first one swept away was his boyhood idol, Olavi Virta.

“I got to know him well. Already as a boy, I went to see him on the sand dunes of Yyteri when he appeared at a dance pavilion there in 1955 and 1956. I admired his singing and his great band. In 1959, a record company manager invited me and Olavi to a sauna. We became good friends. Olavi was a high baritone, almost a tenor in the early days”

But at the ‘60’s progressed, so did Olavi Virta’s drinking.

“Yes, I did my share of partying with him. We all partied a lot back then. But then his physique gave in. When celebrated his 50th birthday, he was still in quite good condition. But then his health took a downturn. He was unable to perform for four years before his death. He died at 57.”

EINO GRÖN by Tomi Hinkkanen

Another popular singer, the beautiful Laila Kinnunen, suffered the same kind of fate. Eino and Laila were the same age and started their careers at the same time.

“Laila recorded her first album in the fall of 1957, and I did mine in the spring of 1958. She was such a sweet girl. We worked together and were great friends. I think that the people she associated had a lot to do with it. It seemed quite odd to me that she got hooked on alcohol. She spent her last years in really sad, squalid conditions.”

The reason Eino himself is still going strong dates back to a decision he made back in 1977.

“I have jokingly said that when Elvis died I put the glass down for the very last time. I guess it was not because of Elvis, but due to the conclusion that I had come to after much pondering. I was also surrounded by friends who had decided to quit drinking and that encouraged me. I told myself that I couldn’t be outdone by them and that decision has paid off.”

Eino had fallen in love with Florida a couple of years earlier.

“In 1974, I met a well-known Finnish businessman who owned a motel here. He asked me to come visit him. Then a good friend of mine had an exhibition in New York. I went there and continued onto Los Angeles, San Diego, and New Orleans. Then I came to Florida for six days.”

Eino immediately took to the balmy climate and easy-going life of the Sunshine State.

“The weather played a big part in it. I came here with the family in 1976 and 1977. On that second trip, I was offered a nice beach property which I made a preliminary agreement. We were able to move into our new Florida home the following year, 1978. We still live in the same place. It is a 6-story condominium-building. There is a sauna, a swimming pool, and stairs that lead to the beach. We can see the Atlantic Ocean from our condo. It looks different every day”

He has been married to her wife Marjatta for 50 years. They have one son.

“Ari is a musical guy, but did not follow his father on that career path. He is a physical therapist and lives in Helsinki. So he can give his father acupuncture treatments when necessary.”

EINO GRÖN by Tomi Hinkkanen

Such treatments came in handy after two car accidents that Grön had in 1996 and 2010. In the first accident, Grön was blinded by late afternoon sun on a Finnish country road and hit a Caterpillar that was parked on the side of the road. He fractured his pelvis and was hospitalized for a long time. The second accident also happened on a country road in Finland.

“I was driving tired to our vacation house in Reposaari. Suddenly, a fox started crossing the road. I tried to avoid it by steering to the side. The loose gravel on the roadside grabbed a hold of the wheels and made me lose control of the car. The doctors had to remove a disc from my neck. Since then I have rehabilitated my self by exercising in the pool.”

Grön exercises and plays golf. He says that sleeping well is also good for the voice. In the spring of 201, he released his 40th record, ‘Lauluja rakkaudesta – Vuosikymmenten suosikit’ (Songs of Love – Favorites from Past Decades). “There are songs from post WWII war to the 2000s and they are all songs that I have not previously recorded.”

Eino plays some of the songs for me on his car stereo. His velvety voice has remained unchanged by time. There are wonderful tunes on the record such as Barbi Benton’s hit ‘Ain’t That Just the Way’, Anna Ericksson’s ‘When You Look at Me’ and Elvis’ ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’. The disc contains 16 songs.

EINO GRÖN by Tomi Hinkkanen

Eino and Marjatta Grön’s year follows a familiar pattern. Early fall, winter and spring are spent in Florida, the rest of the time ‘Eikka’, as he is know to fans, performs in Finland. There are the Christmas concerts that he gives in November and December and the big summer season that is spent touring the indoor and outdoor dance arenas of Finland.

Not many people know that Eino Grön is a dual citizen – he has both Finnish and U.S. citizenships.

“I got a green card in 1996. Then in 2007 I had the opportunity to acquire American citizenship which didn’t affect my Finnish citizenship. Now it is much nicer to come home to Florida. In the past it always involved a lot of explaining at the airport.”

At 72, Eino has no plans to retire.

“The quality of my voice has remained relatively high. I do not feel that I should quit any time soon. And I love music, so I go on.”

EINO GRÖN by Tomi Hinkkanen

He mentions Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Liza Minnelli as his favorite singers. His recipe for great singing:

‘I’ve been paying attention to the same issues as Frank Sinatra. He was brilliant in phrasing and pronunciation. In my singing, I’ve always strived to pronounce every word clearly. The rest is breathing technique and talent one is born with.’