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'Today is today and I love you': From Madagascar to Duluth, couple’s love endures for seven decades

Arndt and Hazel Braaten go for a walk near their Duluth home on June 8, 2017. The couple married in 1947. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service1 / 4
Arndt and Hazel Braaten share a laugh on June 8, 2017, in their Duluth home while talking about their life together and their time in Madagascar. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service2 / 4
Arndt and Hazel Braaten married on Aug. 31, 1947. Braaten family photo3 / 4
Hazel Braaten, a nurse, feeds an infant in Madagascar in the mid-1960s. The child’s mother had died in childbirth. Braaten family photo4 / 4

Arndt Braaten was never one to make impulsive decisions.

When he was confirmed into the Lutheran church, for example, the 13-year-old saw it as an irrevocable lifetime commitment.

"I was very much aware that I was standing before almighty God who created the universe and everything in it, promising to be faithful to him to the end," said Braaten, now 91. "Now that was very awesome, and I wasn't about to break it."

For someone who took his commitments so seriously, it was out of character for Braaten when he asked Hazel Henryson — whom he had known for one month and was seeing for only the second time — to go to Madagascar with him.

"And I said to myself, 'Arndt, what in the world have you done now?' " he recalled last week with a smile. " 'She doesn't even know me. Did she understand that that was a proposal?' "

Score one for impulsive decisions. The couple were married a few months later, and this year — on Aug. 31 — will celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary.

Their story is one of enduring love, from Madagascar to academia in the United States to small country churches and, for the past few months, to living with a son, Dr. Arndt Braaten Jr., and his family in Duluth.

"It really was, 'til death do us part,'" said the oldest of their four children, Linda Zawack, who was visiting recently from her home in the state of Virginia. "And there was no in-between. And ... they were dedicated to each other."

'A tremendous gift'

Arndt and Hazel Braaten moved to Duluth in February from Northfield, Minn., where they had been able to live independently because Zawack and her husband were close by. When the Zawacks moved to Virginia, the younger Arndt and Daisy Braaten found a larger home in the Congdon Park neighborhood to provide more room for their teenage children and a bedroom and small living room for the elder Arndt and Hazel to call their own.

"It's like a tremendous gift dropping out of heaven," Arndt Sr. said.

He did most of the talking during an interview in the family room of the Braaten home, speaking matter-of-factly and often pausing to chuckle or burst out in an infectious laugh. Hazel, who has mild to moderate dementia, occasionally added a comment but mostly watched her husband, a smile on her face, as they sat close together on a sofa.

"Mom adored every cell in Dad's body," Zawack said. "And she says that, right, Mom? 'I love every cell in your body,' she'll tell him."

Hazel moves carefully, using a walker when she strolls with her husband and part-time caregiver Sharilyn Walters outside the house. Arndt uses a cane while walking outside but still drives and is in good health. He claims his memory has slipped since he turned 85, and says he is less fluent than he used to be in French and Malagasy, the primary languages of Madagascar. But, without hesitation, he rattled off his Army ID number from his service in World War II: 33957796.

First encounter

He volunteered for the U.S. military, leaving Madagascar at age 17 and arriving at the recruiting station in Minneapolis at 18, even though he had spent only a year and a half in this country up to that point. His parents, both of whom had immigrated to the U.S. from Norway, served as missionaries in the African island nation, where his father directed the Lutheran mission agency.

After serving in the military, Arndt enrolled as a pre-seminary student at St. Olaf College in Northfield in 1946. His parents were on furlough from their mission work, living in a cottage at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, and his mother was looking for recruits to eventually replace her as a nurse in Madagascar, Arndt related.

She learned of a young nurse from Story City, Iowa, named Hazel Henryson who was working as a psychiatric nurse at General Hospital in Minneapolis while taking classes at Lutheran Bible Institute, and was interested in missionary work. It was a little before Easter 1947, and she invited Hazel and another woman to their cottage to look at slides of Madagascar. Her son was there for a visit.

Arndt described his first encounter with Hazel as if it had just happened the day before.

"I saw her step off that streetcar fit to kill," he said. "I mean, she was dressed from proper hat down to the proper shoes ... and she dropped her white glove. I picked it up and gave it to her, and I thought to myself, 'And she is going to be a missionary nurse? Well, I'll see to it.'"

He later learned that Hazel already had turned to her friend and announced that "I'm going to marry that man," an account that Hazel confirmed.

"I could honestly say — honestly, and I could show you her picture — that she was more beautiful than anything I'd ever seen of Hollywood stars," Arndt said.

Two weeks after Easter, Arndt asked Hazel out, and she agreed. He took her to the Nankin, which at the time was a landmark Chinese restaurant in Minneapolis. They had a table in the balcony and stayed there from the time the restaurant opened at 6 p.m. until it closed at 11 p.m.

They then drove to Lake Calhoun.

"It was a beautiful evening, the moon was shining on the lake and the air was very cool and fresh and she somehow slipped into my arms," he recalled.

That was when he popped the Madagascar question.

A 'malarial hole'

With his schooling barely begun, the couple initially planned to get married in five years, and then in three. "Then we thought ... we're not going to last that long and not get into trouble," Arndt recalled. "So we just decided that we would get married in four months."

He managed to finish college in three years and seminary in another three. He was willing to go anywhere the Lutheran church sent him, he said, except South Africa — he abhorred apartheid. His first choice was Madagascar, and he was invited to serve there, but at his last choice in that country — a Lutheran boys' school called Manantantely. Arndt had avoided most education courses in school with the thought of avoiding Manantantely, he said.

They arrived, after 18 months in France to bone up on the French language, with two young children. The school was located in a "malarial hole," Arndt said, but also turned out to be a good fit. He led an effort to improve the grounds and remodel dilapidated buildings, clearing two streams that went through the property's 380 acres and filling any holes that could hold enough water to breed mosquitoes.

He was the administrator of a school with 400 students with no dean of students and no secretary. He also taught 21 hours a week in French and Malagasy in three disciplines. He convinced the Malagasy people that boys and girls could go to the same school, and soon Manantantely had as many girls as boys. Requiring equal parts of administering, teaching, building and even farming, the job was "made for me," Arndt said cheerfully.

In addition to being a mom to what, eventually, became four children, Hazel applied her nursing skills. Zawack recalled that her mom operated a dispensary out of the back porch of their home and made visits to the villages to check on people and teach them healthier habits.

The worst job

They served in Madagascar from 1954-67, with a furlough in the middle. They then relocated to the U.S. because Linda, the oldest, was ready for college and the Braatens had agreed that would be the time for them to make the move.

"They saw a lot of my father's peers who were left back in the States without their parents really having a lot of struggles," Zawack explained.

Having almost completed a Ph.D. in education by then, Arndt was invited to join the faculty at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. From there he moved to Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, where he served as president for six years.

It was the worst job he ever had, Arndt said.

"Fifty percent of your time is fundraising," he explained. "I can give money away, but I hate to ask for money."

He turned from that to parish ministry, serving as pastor of a Lutheran church in Cresco, Iowa, for another six years before officially retiring at 65. But he offered his services as an interim pastor and was called by a country church about 20 miles from Decorah, where he and Hazel had built their home.

"I served there for 10 years as an interim for $15,000 a year," he said.

Arndt was nearly 80 when he finally retired for good, and the couple moved to Northfield after they no longer could care for their home in Decorah.

Then Duluth, where Walters came to know them and suggested the News Tribune write a story about the Braatens. "They have lived an unusual and adventure-filled life," Walters wrote.

Standing outside of their home one day recently, Walters talked about a recent moment exemplifying the couple's relationship.

"We were at the breakfast table and Arndt came in and he said, 'Honey, I just want to apologize to you about being short with you last night,'" Walters related. "And she said, 'You were?' And he said, 'Yeah, I just got impatient and I just wanted you to know I'm sorry.' And she said, 'Well, that was yesterday. That's in the past. Today is today and I love you.'

"I told their grandchildren that were there, 'And that's why marriages last 70 years.'"