Abraham Lincoln once observed that, “It’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” At age 100, Eugene Nordby, MD ’43, has had the rare good fortune to enjoy both long life and years filled with meaningful achievement. His distinguished career as an orthopedic surgeon, his 72-year marriage and his passion for preserving his Norwegian heritage form the outlines of an admirable life.
Having grown up in Baldwin, Wisconsin, where he became that town’s first Eagle Scout, Nordby earned a bachelor’s degree from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. There, in 1938, he met the love of his life, Olive Marie Jensen, who had recently started her career as an art teacher at Luther College.
Medical school drew Nordby to Madison in 1939, and his sweetheart and her mother moved to Madison the following year. A 1941 wedding commenced Eugene and Olive Nordby’s partnership of more than seven decades.
With his medical degree in hand in 1943, the couple stayed in Madison for Eugene Nordby to pursue his internship and orthopedic surgery training at Madison General Hospital.
As was the case for many physicians in those days, his early career took a detour during World War II. Eugene Nordby served as a military surgeon, first in Okinawa, Japan, and then in South Korea during the post-war withdrawal of forces and regional stabilization.
Returning from military service in 1947, he began practicing with H. Lewis Greene, MD, a mentor at Madison General, and three years later, Eugene Nordby became board-certified in orthopedic surgery. While at Madison General, he served for several years as chief of the medical staff, and he was the first physician elected to the hospital’s board of directors.
Eugene Nordby also partnered with Greene in a private orthopedic practice that served much of southern Wisconsin. The two traveled from one community to another, performing surgeries in local hospitals that had no orthopedic surgeons. Subsequently, he was part of a six-member group practice in Madison, known as Bone and Joint Surgery Associates. Although Eugene Nordby retired in 1981, the practice continued until 2014.
Describing him as a doer is an understatement. Throughout his career, he has been a founder, leader and active member in orthopedic organizations at the state and national levels. He held leadership roles in the Wisconsin Medical Society and the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. He served on the board of WPS (Wisconsin Physician Services) Insurance for 55 years, including 30 as its board chair. During his tenure, WPS Insurance grew from a small organization affiliated with Blue Cross/Blue Shield and the Wisconsin Medical Society to an independent, non-profit corporation that continues to have a strong presence in the state’s health insurance marketplace.
In 1987, Eugene Nordby founded and became the first president and executive director of the International Intradiscal Therapy Society. The organization held its annual meetings in Russia, Europe and throughout the United States. Eugene Nordby’s humorous talks all over the world led some to call him the “Bob Hope” of orthopedics and made him a popular speaker.
Along with his busy orthopedic practice and many professional leadership roles, he has valued family life and made time for many personal interests. He and his wife had one son, Jon Nordby, PhD, now a retired forensic scientist, professor of forensics at Pacific Lutheran University, and author of academic and popular publications on applying forensic science to solving crimes.
While Eugene Nordby was becoming one of the leading orthopedic surgeons of his day, Olive Nordby pursued a career as an artist and philanthropist. Her award-winning woodcuts have hung in galleries throughout the Midwest and been captured in a large-format retrospective book. Her artwork continues to adorn the Northwoods home the couple shared for decades. Olive Nordby died in 2014, just two days shy of her 99th birthday.
Together, the Nordbys became leaders in the Norwegian-American community and played an active role in the Norwegian Genealogical Society and many other organizations. The grandson of four Norwegian grandparents, Eugene Nordby was a leader for decades at the Vesterheim Museum and Heritage Center in Decorah, Iowa, established to showcase and preserve the history and culture of Norway. He served for years as chair of the center’s board and remains an honorary trustee of the museum. During his time as chair, he made frequent trips to Norway, always accompanied by his wife, to negotiate the purchase of artifacts for the museum and build relationships that would allow the museum to grow and sustain itself. During those travels, he met often with King Olav V, then monarch of Norway, who was honorary chair of the museum. The two became friends, and in the 1970s, the king recognized Eugene Nordby’s cultural preservation efforts by conferring Norwegian knighthood on his American friend.
These days, Eugene Nordby spends four months a year at his home in northern Wisconsin, often joined by his son. Fishing is a favorite pursuit.
“We don’t catch much, but that’s alright,” he laughs.
He enjoys preparing Norwegian treats such as krumkake and baking in general. Chocolate chip cookies, a universal favorite, are among his specialties.
The remainder of the year he spends in Madison at his home in a retirement community.
At age 100, he maintains many of the professional and personal relationships he has built over the years. With organizational help from his son, two gatherings marked his centennial birthday, one in the Northwoods and one in Madison, each including 100 or more guests.
Asked what he views as the key to his longevity, Eugene Nordby responds, “A good life partner, and a glass of red wine every day!”
By Beth Fultz
This article appears in Quarterly magazine.