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Finnish devotion leads to award

VIRGINIA -- Eila Ivonen is a "vihurit" within the Finnish community. Translated from Finnish: a whirlwind. Ivonen, of Virginia, a slender, spirited woman, has spent thousands of hours teaching and preserving Finnish language and culture across th...

VIRGINIA -- Eila Ivonen is a "vihurit" within the Finnish community.

Translated from Finnish: a whirlwind.

Ivonen, of Virginia, a slender, spirited woman, has spent thousands of hours teaching and preserving Finnish language and culture across the Northland and the nation since her 1953 immigration to the U.S.

Because of her endless devotion to her native country, Ivonen will receive on Saturday the Knight of the Order of the White Rose, one of Finland's most prestigious awards.

Only four such awards are being given this year in the United States.

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"She's been the unofficial Finnish ambassador of Virginia," said Pam Brunfelt of Britt, a history and science professor at Vermilion Community College in Ely, who nominated Ivonen for the award. "She's a woman of great dignity, grace and humor and she teaches through encouragement, not criticism."

Osmo Lipponen, the Finnish consul general to the United States, will present Ivonen with the award at the Coates Plaza Hotel in Virginia.

"I've been nervous," Ivonen said in a strong Finnish accent that can be traced to her birthplace of Pori, Finland. "Since January, my stomach has been a mess."

For decades, Ivonen has volunteered as a translator of Finnish letters, diaries and newspapers and for court cases. She has lectured at festivals, preserved national costumes, written grant applications, offered cooking demonstrations and taught language classes.

With her husband, Clarence, Ivonen performed across the county in "Virhurit," a Finnish dance group. In the mid-1950s, Ivonen joined the Ladies of Kaleva, a Finnish fraternal organization dedicated to preserving Finnish heritage, which was founded in Virginia in 1893.

She also served a two-year term as national president of the Ladies of Kaleva and for 14 years on a national committee.

Today she serves on the Kaleva Hall scholarship committee and is secretary of the Kaleva Building Corp. board of directors.

The 101-year-old hall is "her second home," Clarence Ivonen said.

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"Her promotion of the Finnish cultural arts and her work at the lodge [Kaleva Hall] has been tremendous," said James Johnson of Mountain Iron, an honorary consul of Finland. "Her dedication to Finnish culture and language has been insurmountable."

At age 21, Ivonen left Finland for Virginia to visit her grandfather, Frank Rantanen. He had left Finland in 1913, lived in a boarding house in downtown Virginia and worked on the railroad.

"None of the family had seen him since he left," Ivonen said. "When I came here, I was going to study English."

In the midst of a mining and logging boom, thousands of immigrants had flocked to the Iron Range for jobs. Many couldn't speak English.

But Ivonen found the people to be warm and welcoming.

"What I discovered were people that were friendly and helpful," she said. "They took you in as a family member right away."

Ivonen lived in a room within a private home where she had only nails on the wall to hang her clothes.

For a time, she attended Suomi College in Hancock, Mich.

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She returned to Virginia and worked as a nurse's aide at Virginia Municipal Hospital, where she met her future husband, a patient at the hospital. She also worked at the Virginia Public Library before going back to school and earning a registered nurse degree from Hibbing Junior College and community health and psychology degrees from Bemidji State University.

Throughout it all, her love of Finland and a desire to preserve its culture remained strong.

Ivonen, who speaks Finnish, Swedish, German and English, taught Finnish language at Mesabi Range Community and Technical College in Virginia and through a Virginia High School community education program from 1993 to 2006.

Ivonen is a "pivotal figure in the Finnish community on the East Range. She's an amazing lady," said Brunfelt, who studied Finnish under Ivonen at Mesabi Range Community and Technical College. "This is a real prestigious award. The recipients in Finland are invited to the presidential palace. This is not an insignificant award."

But Ivonen is hesitant to talk about herself or the award.

"I understand what a great honor it is," Ivonen said. "It's very emotional. 'Overwhelming' has been the term that I have used."

But she admits to being happy that she immigrated to the Iron Range, where she met her husband, also of Finnish descent, and became part of a melting pot of ethnicity.

"I guess I'm a doer," she said. "I join something not to just join and have the name listed in my obit. What I do connects me back to my culture. And I happen to be living in an area where ethnicity is very much alive."

Thanks in a large degree to the "vihurit," Eila Ivonen.

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