Jim Kurtti is the grandson of Finnish immigrants that came to the United States from Finland in the early 20th century and settled in the area of Minnesota and later Michigan (Upper Peninsula). His grandfather Janne (John) Kurtti, who was born in Paanajärvi (formerly part of Kuusamo, now on the Russian side) and his grandmother Jenni (Johanna) Kallunki, who was also from Kuusamo, Finland got married and started a family. His grandfather originally worked the copper mines but bought the farmland in 1911 in Bruce Crossing, Michigan. A community which was mostly Finnish. For that reason, neither of them over learned much English.
Jim grew up listening to the Finnish language and hearing mostly Finnish spoken. It was a big part of his childhood and adolescent years even though he spoke English. He was a teenager before he understood words such as sauna, makkara and tossut were Finnish words.
When it was time for college he fulfilled his grandparents wishes of getting a degree and maintaining his Finnish language. He graduated from Suomi College (Helsinki University) and also from the University of Minnesota with a double major in social work and Finnish studies. After eighteen years in social work he became director of the Finnish American Heritage Center, editor of the Finnish American Reporter, and Honorary Consul of Finland for the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
At Finlandia University in Michigan Jim became totally enmeshed in Finnish American life thanks to the late Dr Robert Ubbelohde, who encouraged him to apply for the positions. He started living, breathing, and sleeping in a Finnish American world, as he describes that.
Jim worked diligently to develop an archive collection, community Finnish classes (also Swedish) Nordic film series, events and concerts. Annual events such as Finland’s Independence program and Heikinpäivä. In recent years a Juhannus program was added and in 2017 he was the director of the Finnish American Folk School which brought artists from Finland and the Upper Midwest to teach traditional arts such as birch bark harvesting and weaving, lapikkaat making, Finnish boat construction and folk dance and music.
In addition to his positions at Finlandia he taught a high school Finnish class for seven years (on his lunch hour ). He is a member of various foundations like Heikinpäivä/Finnish Theme Committee, Finnish American Chamber of Commerce -Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Chairman of Finn Fest USA 2017 festival and numerous FinnFests, Finn Funn Weekends and numerous other festivals and genealogy events.
Jim has had the honor and many opportunities to meet some of Finland’s members of parliament, ambassadors, performers, radio and TV personalities, playwrites, prime ministers and three Finland’s former Presidents (Kekkonen, Niinistö and Halonen).
Jim’s greatest joy and most noteworthy contribution is to have had the opportunity to provide those of Finnish American heritage a chance to expand and appreciate their Finnish identity.
Jim Kurtti has now retired after a long and glorious career. He is proud of his contributions to his Finnish heritage and to the Finnish Americans he so splendidly served for all those years. He still serves as Honorary Consul of Finland in the Upper Peninsula, and continues as a member of various Finnish groups. In retirement he will pursuit the knowledge he learned at the Folk school like spinning, birch bark weaving and fan bird carving. He will also be involved in some history projects.
Jim is telling me that his most important job will be to be “Ukki” for his four grandchildren teaching them about their roots and finding a most enjoyable audience.
Happy Retirement Jim, and thank you for making your grandparents dream come true!
Pictures provided by Jim Kurtti