Sweden, Summer 1959: A Remembrance from the United States

A lot has happened since the summer of 1959 and one of the greatest triumphs in Swedish sports. But the memory lives on, even as far away as Oregon, Daniel B. Klein finds.

I’m an American economics professor who spends much time in Sweden, as my wife and daughter are Swedes and live in Sweden.

Recently I published an article about masks in Sweden and then received some interesting correspondence (including a message that was published as a follow-up). Another friendly message came from an elderly gentleman from the United States, named William Prendergast.

In the message to me, William mentioned that he has spent time in Sweden, his first time as a summer exchange student, at age 17, in the year 1959. I thought to myself: Did he experience that magical moment?!

1959 was the year that Ingemar Johansson, a 5-to-1 underdog, faced Floyd Patterson the heavy-weight champion of the world, in Yankee Stadium. Ingo knocked out Floyd after landing a powerful right and became world champion. The moment is captured in the movie My Life as a Dog:  “Hurray för Ingo! Hurrah för Sverige!” I’ve long known of the moment, and have cherished it, partly from my affection for that movie. I have a magazine cover of Ingo hanging on my wall at home.

I checked Wikipedia and, indeed, it was in summer – 26 June 1959. I replied to William asking excitedly: Did you hear the broadcast of the fight? Here I reproduce William’s reply with his permission:

Dear Daniel:

Amazing that you remember Ingo! He was absolutely a HERO when I was there. I did not SEE the fight, as my host family did NOT HAVE A TV!! I don’t think I saw a single TV during my whole stay in 1959. But you can be sure we listened on the radio, with concurrent translation for my benefit!

There was great celebration on our block of row houses in our small town in Värmland when Ingo KO’d Floyd Patterson!

On my next visit in 1966, by the way, we watched Perry Mason reruns with dubbed Swedish on the family black & white TV!

Before going to Sweden in 1959 I played on my high school football team back in Oregon. I was a tackle (which for Swedes unfamiliar with American football could be roughly equal to a hockey defenseman). When I got to Sweden, my new mates thought I looked like Ingo. I really didn’t, but my build was similar and the Swedes were just about 100% tall and slender. Of course, we all got a good look at each other’s builds because one of the first things we did, about my second day there, was to go to the lake where everyone went skinny dipping, in a mixed group! The initiation shocked my American Puritan strain. But I got over it!!

Sweden in 1959 was a lot different than it is today. Same is true of the US of course. But the population difference really shows in the cities and larger towns. Outside of cities and towns, almost ALL the roads, even major roads, at least in the northern 2/3 of the country, were unpaved in 1959. My host family lived near the center of Sweden, where my host family’s father was an engineer. He was originally from up North on the Norwegian border. We spent about half the summer up there at their cabin across the road from a huge, picturesque old mountain hotel that the family owned. This was outside a tiny hamlet which has today grown into a major ski resort area for both downhill and nordic. In 2010 I spent six weeks there snowmobiling with my host friend. Many of my host family have done Wasaloppet at least once!

Sweden was still driving on the Left side of the road in 1959 of course. I was there in 1966 when they were talking about the forthcoming changeover to driving on the Right, coming in a year. Subsequently they pulled that off in September 1967 after about 3 days of a halt and gradual re-opening of traffic. The accident rate actually dropped for the year. Although the Swedes didn’t have as many cars per capita as we did in 1967, they were a very motorized nation. I have always reflected that the US could never have pulled off that feat with nearly as little drama!

It may be because of my Swedish friend’s family interest in timberland up North, but I have always been amazed at how sensible the Swedes I’ve met are about forestry. Being from a major forestry state (Oregon is the leader in softwood lumber), I can testify that forestry is a MAJOR political football here, with the “NEVER CUT A TREE” people very powerful for quite some time. In Sweden, on the other hand, I found that, although the people I met were extremely well informed and sensitive about the natural environment and its preservation, they were NOT the least bit sentimental about cutting trees, viewing the forest as akin to a crop that was growing there to serve us. And, equally, that it was our serious responsibility to preserve and sustain that crop by prompt reforestation.

When I’ve told me Swedish friends about the battles we’ve had in my home state over whether to allow logging on public timberlands (slightly over half the area of the state), they express incomprehension:  “Why is it a problem to log the forest? It will grow back!” 

Anyway, just thought I’d share a few  reflections on the many things I’ve seen in Sweden over 61 years. I’m sure you will enjoy life there!

Best regards, 

William J. Prendergast

What joy it must have been for him, at age 17, as a visitor to a small town of Sweden, to experience that moment! I am grateful to him for sharing his memories and his perspective on things.

I imagine that on 26 June 1959 he was overwhelmed by the Swedish sentiment that surrounded him. But I wonder whether he was pulling just a little for his fellow American?

And I wonder how William felt when Floyd regained the title in the rematch of 1960, and prevailed again over Ingo in 1961. The two fighters long remained friends.

In 1962 Floyd lost the title to Sonny Liston, who in turn lost it in 1964 to a mouthy 7-to-1 underdog named Cassius Clay.

Now it is May 2020 and smiles of summer days and summer nights return to Sweden. Our children lead their lives with little knowledge of Ingo’s triumph in Yankee Stadium.  But memories of Ingo are still alive—in Oregon, even.

We are all part of a single stream!

Daniel B. Klein is professor of economics and JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, where he leads a program in Adam Smith. He is the author of Knowledge and Coordination: A Liberal Interpretation and chief editor of Econ Journal Watch.