Kurtti knighted by Finland

Finnish government recognizes Painesdale man

Jim Kurtti, left, with Finnish Ambassador Jarmo Sareva after Sareva bestowed upon Kurtti the honor of Knight of the Order of the Lion, First Class.

HANCOCK — Jim Kurtti remembers years ago, standing outside one Midsummer evening, etching in his mind all of the sights and sounds of the dance and celebration that was taking place in his rural Upper Michigan hometown, Bruce Crossing. Though he was still young at the time, he suspected this might be one of the last Finnish-American events he’d witness, so he opted to savor the moment.

More than five decades later, turns out the rumors of Finnish America’s demise were greatly exaggerated – thanks in large part to folks like Jim. And the Finnish government agrees, which is why Ambassador Jarmo Sareva took the opportunity during a recent gala event in Hancock to bestow upon Jim the honor of Knight of the Order of the Lion, First Class.

“This was in recognition of his outstanding service, since 2008, to Finland as its Honorary Consul in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan,” Sareva explained, “as well as in recognition of his long-standing contributions to the Finnish-American community and to the preservation of Finnish heritage in the United States.”

Kurtti served as director of the Finnish American Heritage Center and Historical Archive from 2000 to his retirement in spring 2021. During that time, he also was the editor in chief of The Finnish American Reporter; this dual role brought him to locations and events across the country, and beyond.

The list of Jim’s service and accomplishments is truly impressive. Among other things, as director of the FAHC, he created the Nordic Film Series, the Finnish American Folk School, and the Finnish American Music Camp. Under his leadership the Center hosted numerous cultural and musical concerts, lectures, and Finland’s Independence Day programs, and hosted visiting dignitaries.

The pinnacle of FAHC cultural activity that occurred under Jim’s direction was the hosting of FinnFest USA 2013, which brought some 8,000 people to the Copper Country to celebrate their Finnish heritage.

Jim is a former board member of the Salolampi Foundation, a creator of the Heikinpäivä celebration, a charter member of the Upper Peninsula Ethnic Music Alliance, an active member of the Finnish American Chamber of Commerce of the Copper Country, and is active in numerous other civic and church activities.

Jim’s role was also very important in the successful campaign to save the Finnish American Heritage Center following the closure of Finlandia University in Hancock in 2023.

“I am humbled by the recognition,” Kurtti said, “but happy that it happened at such a special event at my former workplace.”

Kurtti’s connection to the now-defunct university began right after his high school graduation, when he opted to enroll at Suomi College.

“After studying two years at Suomi College, I received Ministry of Education (Opetus Ministeriö) scholarship enabling me to study at Helsinki University (1977-1978),” he said. “For a 19-year-old boy from a small Upper Peninsula village, the experience was totally life-changing. From the first day, I was smitten with all things Finnish.

“Inspired by my year of study in Finland, I decided to expand my social work studies to a double major which included Finnish Studies, selecting the University of Minnesota (Minneapolis) as the suitable place to do that – with the assumption that social work would land me a job and Finnish studies would honor my immigrant grandparents.”

Two weeks after earning his degree from the University of Minnesota, Jim landed a social work position with the Houghton County (Michigan) Juvenile Court. Within two years, he earned the role of Juvenile Court Administrator. After an 18-year career with the county, he took advantage of the opportunity to combine his lifelong passion with his employment and accepted the offer to direct Finlandia University’s primary Finnish cultural operations.

Jim retired in spring 2021; he and his wife Debbie reside in Painesdale, Michigan. They have two adult sons and five grandchildren and are enjoying their continued engagement in Finnish-American cultural activities.

Editor’s note: David Maki is the managing editor of The Finnish American Reporter, a monthly newspaper for Finns and friends of Finland in North America published in Hancock, Michigan.


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