Young at heart, Rosie and Anna recall years of Finn festivals

<I>SUE HOLWAY photo</I><BR>Anna Ehrlund, left, and Rose E. Johnson sit on Rosie's front porch in Naselle on recent warm day, planning this year's Finnish American Folk Festival, set for this weekend.

NASELLE - Rose Elaine (Nelson) Johnson and Anna (Wirkkala) Ehrlund are founding board members of the Finn-Am Folk Festival which takes place July 30 through Aug. 1 in Naselle.

Anna began and directed the children's choir, acted in festival plays, and chaired or co-chaired the festival for years. Rosie has always been the "crew boss" to almost magically turn the Naselle School grounds into a vision recalling the town squares of Finland along with touches of old Naselle.

As board members, they remain unflappable in the midst of crisis.

"Remember we are all volunteers," they say. "None of us are getting paid, and if we aren't doing it for fun, why bother?"

The festival's motto, "Love and Unity" means not only keeping the peace among the hundreds of volunteers, but also building new relationships. The festival emphasizes Finnish-American roots many in the area still share, but anyone can be a "Finn for a Day." The festival builds a sense of community that experts say is what America needs to find once more.

Together Anna and Rosie offer insight, wisdom, prayers, a shoulder to lean on, and someone to go to lunch with when your tongue is hanging out and you're so tired you can't see straight. They know how to work hard and play hard, too, mixing them together as the festival nears.

This hasn't been an easy year for them. Both survived life-threatening illnesses and long hospitalizations and count themselves lucky to be alive. Rosie's husband Iver also died shortly after the 2002 festival. Under Rosie's tutelage, Iver embraced the festival. As our "Finndian," he built exquisite birdhouses to raffle off and built and helped move and assemble a small village on the school grounds (a sauna, school house, and hysik-out house).

"Of course I miss him a lot," Rosie says. "Iver was always so good to move the lumber and get stuff together. "His crazy humor and practical jokes we all miss."

As she looked down the long tables at the Finn-Am Festival meeting last Sunday evening, Rosie reflected, "We all come from different back grounds, a variety of people, belonging to different churches ... it's neat working with them. Humor goes a long ways with me. Without it, it's flat. It's wonderful if the new folks are going to take over after we've gone, if there are enough home-towners who will."

Anna, late to the meeting, said, "As soon as I got out of the car, I heard laughter. As I got closer, another great big burst of laughter about knocked me over. 'That's it!' I thought. It has to be that. You have to like each enough to listen to each other, to laugh with each other, to even get a little uptight and then forget it and go on. It's too hard, too heavy, too big a job otherwise. I thought, 'Wow! Look at all these kids. For me, there's no way, no way, I could do all that I used to any more."

"Me neither," Rosie chimed in.

"You reach a point where you know you can't do it all anymore. But then, see? We have solid young people, full of enthusiasm and the Old Nick, ready to go," Anna said. "I see their eyes sparkle, even the quieter ones like Jeanine Johnson. And Anita Raistakka was practically jumping up and down in her chair. Patti Wagler, visiting, watched everyone, and wanted to get in there, too.

"It's a joy to see all these young kids doing such a good job, each in their own way, making it as good as we possibly can." Anna continued. "We give the best of who we are, not copying anyone else, but honoring our own people."

"I remember that first one," Rosie said. "It turned out so neat. We went and got all these milk jugs and sent the guys into the woods to pick cedar boughs to put in them. It's wonderful how it all comes together, like anything we do around here.

"In 1982 at our first festival, I had no idea - I don't think any of us did, even you, Sue - how far it would go."

"And here it's just gotten bigger and bigger every time," Rosie said.

Anna said, "I just think, 'Wow!' "

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