From David Maki at the Finnish-American Reporter
HANCOCK, Mich. — Having grown up on the family farm in Pelkie, Michigan and living in that community of mostly Finnish immigrants for most of his life, Reuben Niemistö was an ideal candidate to join the board of the Hanka Finnish Farm Homestead in nearby Askel.
He became a board member in 1995 —the Homestead opened to the public a few years earlier — and eventually took on a leadership role, serving as the Hanka Association president for a period of about 6 years, retiring from the board as president in 2013. Though he’s not there three times a week like he was in past years, he still continues some involvement, giving tours, especially when the guests can appreciate his fluency in Finnish or its “cousin” language Fingliska (an amalgamation of Finnish and English).
In recognition of his decades of dedication to Hanka Homestead and other Finnish-American activities, and his recent passing of the leadership torch to others, Reuben Niemistö has been selected as the Hankooki Heikki for 2015 by the City of Hancock’s Finnish Theme Committee. He was announced at Finlandia University’s annual Finnish Independence Day program on December 6, and presented with a bouquet and an engraved table flag.
This honor is annually bestowed upon a person or people whose commitment to preserving and promoting Finnish culture in the area goes above and beyond “normal” efforts. The honoree presides over the Heikinpäivä festivities, wearing the crown and robe that come with the honor.
Hanka Homestead, a one-of-a-kind museum in Michigan, is a cooperating site of the Keweenaw National Historical Park. Though it’s definitely off the beaten path (guests must travel along a meandering dirt road to get there) it’s found its niche, providing a historic and cultural experience for thousands of folks every summer.
Hanka Homestead isn’t the only item on Reuben’s cultural resume. As a young man, he started to play the violin, studying under longtime Suomi college music professor Arthur Hill. That interest in music has carried with him and his family through his 89 years, during which he served in World War II, operated the family farm, ran a sawmill, worked in the insurance industry and served on the Baraga Township School Board, including a long term as board president.
His passion for education extends far beyond the public school system. He’s an aficionado of Finnish-American history and culture, and that, coupled with his keen memory for old-time traditions and knack for storytelling, allows him to share tales dating back to early immigrant times with regularity and a great deal of humor. As his son Paul relates, “Reuben’s vision and hearing are dimming a bit, but his tongue remains sharp.”
Reuben Niemistö’s first official duty as Hankooki Heikki 2015 will be to appear in the festival parade, in full Heikki regalia, at 11 a.m. on Saturday, January 31. The parade is one of many events scheduled for the upcoming Heikinpäivä festivities. For more information, visit the festival Web site at pasty.com/heikki.