Every time his family took a vacation when he was growing up, Hendrick Langhjelm Jr. remembers his father checking telephone books to see if he could find another Langhjelm.
“He never did, but as an adult I did the same thing anywhere I traveled,” Langhjelm said.
More than three decades ago, after moving from a job in British Columbia to the Bremerton shipyard as a shipfitter, the younger Langhjelm still hadn’t found one.
Then, in 1983, one found him.
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“I was working on a submarine and as I climbed up and out of the hatch, there was a man standing there looking at me,” Langhjelm said. “Across his hard hat was his last name — Langhelm. I couldn’t believe it.”
That was the day he met Jim Langhelm, a Gig Harbor welder supervisor who’d worked at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard since 1961.
Just one letter in their last names separated the two men, and both knew it couldn’t be a coincidence.
“I’d seen his name on a time card and thought it had to be a mechanical error,” Jim said. “Then we met, talked for a few minutes and agreed to meet the next day. It was like coming out of a fog.
“That day changed both our lives.”
And the lives of two families who sprang from the same Finnish immigrant who came to America in 1900.
My dad never spoke about his father or grandfather. There were four of us kids, and we never pushed him.
Jim and Hendrick got together a couple times after that but didn’t discover a mutual relative. Both agreed to bring family photos to their next meeting.
Jim brought a photo of his grandfather, Thorwald Langhelm. He had emigrated from Finland through Ellis Island and then to Gig Harbor, accompanied by 16-year-old girl named Alma who he claimed was his bride.
Hendrick brought a photo of his great-grandfather. He didn’t know much about him other than his name, Thorwald Langhjelm.
Again, one letter in the last name separated them.
“That was the beginning of the end of an 80-year-old mystery,” Hendrick said. “I was flabbergasted. I’d found the missing family my dad was always looking for.”
What the two men found upon further research shook both families.
Jim and I were like two ships at sea. Any course correction in either of our lives, we’d never have met. Then I climbed out the hatch of a submarine, and there he was.
“(Thorwald) left a pregnant wife and two children in Finland, and dropped the ‘j’ from his last name when he got here,” Jim said.
Neither of their fathers knew that story. Hendrick’s father was disgusted by it. Jim’s was horrified that Thorwald and Alma might not have been married.
“When I told my father, the first thing he said was, ‘Oh my God, I’m a bastard,’” Jim said. “He was from an era where being born out of wedlock was a huge social disgrace.
“Thorwald opened a general store in Rosedale (part of Gig Harbor) and died in 1927. He was not kind to other people.”
The family Thorwald Langhjelm left in Finland did not fare well. His wife, Rosa, died within a year of having been deserted, and family research turned up next to nothing on her children, Nils, Olaf and Pia.
It turns out Nils, who never left Finland, was Hendrick’s grandfather.
“(Nils) stayed in Finland, and he and my father (Hendrick Sr.) never got along,” Hendrick said. “Nils apparently didn’t think my father would amount to much, and I think one of the reasons (Hendrick Sr.) emigrated to the United States in 1950 was to prove his father wrong.”
In 1955, Hendrick Sr. returned to Finland with his wife, Helen, and Hendrick Jr. was born there. Then the little family returned to America.
And through the years, Hendrick Sr. constantly checked telephone books.
“Dad was convinced there was a branch of the family that had to be here somewhere. He just had no idea where,” Hendrick said.
Similarly, Jim’s father had suspicions.
“My father suspected something had happened, but had no idea what it was,” Jim said. “He never said much about Thorwald. What we learned, we learned mostly from a trunk dad left in the attic.”
The trunk contained photographs and documents, many belonging to Thorwald. It revealed the story of Jim’s grandfather — and Hendrick’s great-grandfather — though it wasn’t the tale they’d hoped to find.
Hendrick and I were almost certain we were related. Then we each showed up with a picture of Thorwald — my grandfather and his great-grandfather. That removed all doubt.
There were lighter moments in their search. They found a book had been written about the Langhjelm family and anxiously awaited its arrival.
“We got it, but it was written in Swedish,” Jim said. “Neither Hendrick or I can speak or read Swedish. Hendrick’s father translated some of it.”
Both families came to accept the truth about Thorwald’s life. Alma, the woman he brought with him (no marriage records have been found), lived in the house behind Thorwald’s store for many years after he died.
The extended families of Jim and Hendrick have met and happily included one another into a larger family.
Hendrick is now 60. Jim is 75. Hendrick says Jim is the best thing to come of their long-ago meeting.
“Jim and I have been friends now for 32 years,” Hendrick said. “I live in Belfair, about 30 minutes away. I come to his home, he comes to mine. He looked it up online and determined we’re first cousins, once removed.
“So I gained family the day we met. And I got a wonderful friend.”