Durham County

Life Stories: Holger Nygard, a protector of ancient lore and the Eno

By Elizabeth Shestak

Holger Nygard.
Holger Nygard. courtesy of the Nygard family

Holger Nygard’s work to protect the Eno River started in the 1960s after a fish kill, his daughter Jennifer Nygard said. A truck accident spilled chemicals into a stream that fed the river.

While the smell of hordes of rotting fish wasn’t exactly pleasant, it was the chemical stench that prompted Nygard’s family to leave its historic home along the river’s banks in Durham for a night or two.

“I think that made them activists really fast,” said Jennifer Nygard, the eldest of his four children.

Nygard was an esteemed Duke professor, an expert in medieval literature, ballads and folklore. He taught “Beowulf” and Chaucer, and invited graduate students to his home for magical, moonlit dinners. He delighted in good debate, and in singing ancient tunes, some from his Finnish and Swedish homelands.

But the Eno, and his family’s fight to protect it, defined much of the rest of his time in Durham. Nygard and his wife, Margaret, would spark the movement to save the Eno River from becoming a city reservoir. From their efforts, the Eno River Association was born and some 4,000 acres has since been protected as a state park.

Nygard, who died last month at 94, was born in a village in the Swedish part of Finland. By age 9, he’d made three voyages across the Atlantic, entering the Americas through Ellis Island before settling in Canada, where his parents opened a boarding house. He was exposed to many languages, and proved a brilliant scholar at an early age.

His grades were so strong, his family said, that the Canadian government insisted he continue his studies rather than enlist during World War II. Nygard attended college in Canada and came to the United States for graduate school. It was at the University of California at Berkeley that he met a redheaded co-ed named Margaret. They were married in 1944 and moved around the country as Nygard’s career bloomed. He became an American citizen in 1959.

In the early 1960s, the couple settled in Durham, first living downtown near the Liggett & Meyers tobacco campus. A few years later they found their home along the banks of the Eno. “It was just plain beautiful,” Jennifer Nygard said.

At Duke, in addition to being known for the tattered briefcase he held with one finger, he was considered an authoritative but welcoming professor.

“You would never have known, (unless) somebody else would have told you, what an expert he was,” said Chris Kennedy, former student and senior deputy director of athletics at Duke. “He wouldn't have talked about himself that way. He was always very open to what we wanted to say and never dismissed us.”

When the Nygards moved to Durham, an article ran in the Durham Morning Herald with the headline, “Internationalists Migrate to City.” The publicity the family later garnered wasn’t always so precious.

“They weathered quite a lot of controversy to do what they did,” Jennifer Nygard said. “For a while, we were called communists. I don’t think people realize that it’s not all cute and green and pretty when you try to defend something.”

The Nygards were a solid team, however, and supported one another through it all.

“It was a huge, huge undertaking,” said Duncan Heron, another longtime Eno advocate. “The city wasn’t about to give up that reservoir. And, in effect, we made them do it. And we did it by presenting an alternative. That alternative was the state park.”

While Margaret Nygard was the face of the movement, Holger was home supporting her, acting as a sounding board, and lending his intellect and tenacity to their cause.

“He didn’t back down from a fight. He was a tough guy, and I think that may have carried him a long way,” said daughter Kerstin Nygard.

At 94, he was still engaged with his loved ones, loved PBS’s “Downton Abbey,” and was his family’s resource when it came to punctuation or the origin of a word. But he had spent the last two decades missing his beloved wife. She died, unexpectedly, in 1995, still working on behalf of the river they loved, beside which they’d raised their family.

“It’s difficult to separate the two of them, my parents,” son Erik Nygard said. “The last 20 years were difficult for him.”

News researcher Teresa Leonard contributed to the reporting of this story.

Holger Olof Victorson Nygard

Born: Feb. 24, 1921, in the village of Bertby in Vora, Ostrobothnia, the Swedish part of Finland.

Family: Married Margaret Rodger in 1944, widowed in 1995; children Jennifer, Stephen (deceased), Kerstin and Erik Nygard; two grandsons.

Education: Attended University of British Columbia and earned his doctorate at University of California at Berkeley in 1955.

Career: Was a scholar in folklore, medieval studies, linguistics, ballads, and Chaucer. Taught at the University of Tennessee and University of Kansas before joining the faculty at Duke University, becoming full professor in 1962. Served as director of English graduate studies at Duke for 13 years, retiring in 1989.

Died: May 20, in Durham.