University of North Dakota Faculty/Staff Newsletter

Remembering Playford Thorson

Playford Thorson

Playford Thorson

Playford Thorson II, professor emeritus of history, died Jan. 26 in Grand Forks.

He was born Sept. 27, 1925, to Playford and Mary Ellen (Garrett) Thorson in Albuquerque, N.M.  He graduated from high school in Roswell, N.M.  At age 17, he volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Corps during WWII and served in England, France, and Germany.  He was stationed in northern France as a radar navigation mechanic in an Air Force squadron that dropped paratroopers and carried supplies over the Rhineland in late 1944 and 1945.  He served three years, and was honorably discharged as a Sergeant in the Army Air Force.

He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of New Mexico, where he met Harriet Jean Baldauf.  They married June 24, 1950, in Pontiac, Mich.  They worked and studied in Sweden for a year, where he began his interest in Scandinavian studies.   In 1951 he began working on his doctorate in history at the University of Minnesota, and remained there in various positions for nine years .  The family moved to Grand Forks in 1960, and he began teaching history at UND.  He completed his doctorate and was named professor of history in 1972.

His research centered on early Scandinavian immigrants who settled in North Dakota and its effect on the state’s culture, and he taught Scandinavian history and Western civilization.  He twice won outstanding teaching awards, in 1966 and 1967.  He and William Sherman, a sociologist and priest (now retired), co-authored Plains Folk:  North Dakota’s Ethnic History in 1987.

He was dedicated to students, challenging them to read and often loaned his books to them.  In a letter to the Grand Forks Herald upon Thorson's retirement in 1995, Dan Rylance (former director of UND Special Collections) said:  "In 35 years of teaching classes at UND, Thorson never missed a semester, seldom took leave, and often taught summer sessions.

"Thorson established at least four faculty records at UND.  He smoked more pipes (and lost more), drank more coffee, played more squash and graded more blue books than any other faculty member, maybe two."

He retired in 1995, but continued to offer mini-courses, serve on thesis committees, and teach courses for free.   A year after retirement, he traveled to Norway to teach the history of Norwegians in North Dakota.  He also continued to write and publish.

He enjoyed travel, the outdoors, and camping and canoeing in the Boundary Waters.

He is survived by his wife, Harriet; sons Erik (Samantha), Raymond, Wisc., Jeffrey, Milwaukee, Wisc., Brad, Fargo, and Philip, Sebastian, Fla.; grandchildren Katie, Andrew, Grace, Michael, and Adam; brother Stephen (Billie) Thorson, Palm Desert, Calif.

He was preceded in death by his son, Playford Thorson III, and a brother, Ted.

Funeral services are at 2 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 2, at Amundson Funeral Home, Grand forks.  Visitation will be an hour before the service at Amundson.   Burial will be in Memorial Park Cemetery, Grand Forks.