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Originally published Friday, November 20, 2009 at 12:16 AM

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Former Times reporter Svein Gilje dies at 75

Award-winning former Seattle Times reporter and columnist Svein Gilje lived, some might say, a double life.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Award-winning former Seattle Times reporter and columnist Svein Gilje lived, some might say, a double life.

In addition to his newspaper career, which spanned more than a quarter-century in the Northwest, he immersed himself in a number of interests that highlighted his Nordic heritage, and he was founding president of Seattle's Nordic Heritage Museum, a Ballard landmark and the first of its kind in North America to highlight the heritage of immigrants from the five Nordic countries — Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland.

"He was certainly one of the leaders in the local Norwegian community," said Thomas Stang, retired Norwegian Consul for Washington and Idaho.

In recent years, Mr. Gilje had suffered from a neurological disorder, cortical basal ganglionic degeneration, similar to Parkinson's disease, said his wife, Shelby Gilje, also a former Times reporter and Troubleshooter columnist. He died Nov. 13 at age 75.

As a reporter, Mr. Gilje covered a number of "beats" — from military to business and real estate, architecture to the economy.

"I always found it quite amazing that Svein could earn his living as a journalist in English, which was not his native language," his wife said. "He spoke French, German, Norwegian, Danish and Swedish, and could read novels in those languages."

She said he was inspired to work on plans for the Nordic Heritage Museum in 1975, after he escorted visiting King Olav V of Norway through an exhibition on Norwegian immigration at Seattle's Museum of History & Industry. The visiting royal was impressed with the MOHAI exhibit, but dismayed that there was no permanent home for it.

Mr. Gilje considered that conversation more of a royal commission. He and others of Nordic heritage in the Northwest set to work to create their own museum, which opened in 1980.

"So much of the heart of this [museum] can be traced back to Svein and his legacy," said Eric Nelson, the museum's executive director.

Born in Stavanger, Norway, Mr. Gilje immigrated to the United States in 1954, volunteered for the U.S. military draft and served two years in the Army, mostly overseas, and became a U.S. citizen. He attended the University of Washington, where he earned a bachelor's degree in communications in 1959, and a master's degree in public administration in 1970.

Before joining The Times staff in 1964, he was a reporter at The Bremerton Sun, and had worked at papers in Norway. After early retirement from The Times in 1989, he headed a consulting business focused on Norwegian and American interests, his wife said.

He was active in Nordmanns Forbundet and the Norwegian American Chamber of Commerce in Seattle. He was national vice-president for the Norwegian American Sesquicentennial, marking 150 years of Norwegian immigration to the U.S.

He received the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav, Knight First Class honor from King Olav V, and later the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit, Commander, from King Harald V, his wife said.

Also surviving are his daughter, Kari Gilje; a son Kurt Gilje, and four granddaughters, all Seattle-area residents, and a brother, Ivar Gilje, in Norway.

Remembrances are suggested to the Nordic Heritage Museum, 3014 N.W. 67th St., Seattle, WA 98117-6215. A memorial celebration will be held at the museum at 12:30 p.m. Dec. 14.

Charles E. Brown: 206-464-2206 or cbrown@seattletimes.com

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