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Busy 82-year-old alumnus in home stretch for his Ph.D.

Alf Bjercke (MIT 1943), right, presents his thesis to MIT President Charles M. Vest, which he plans to defend this winter to three professors at the University of Oslo.
Alf Bjercke (MIT 1943), right, presents his thesis to MIT President Charles M. Vest, which he plans to defend this winter to three professors at the University of Oslo.

Norwegian business magnate and MIT alumnus Alf R. Bjercke sits in his "cubbyhole of a summer office" on a pier on Norway's Kirkoy Island, overlooking the North Sea. He and his family shop in the nearby Swedish town of Stromstad, where wines and food are much cheaper than in Norway. Now 82 and long retired from the family's international paint business, Bjercke sends letters and e-mails across the Atlantic with news of his many activities.

Active in the Oslo MIT alumni club, Bjercke most recently returned to campus last spring, when he attended the 60th reunion of the Class of 1943.

This winter, he hopes to defend his Ph.D. thesis on 18th-century military history to three professors at the University of Oslo. He has worked hard for this, overcoming obstacles such as his limited academic background. He said he's keeping his fingers crossed that the professors will agree that his work "holds water. As we Norse put it, 'There is hope in the dangling fish line!'"

Bjercke left MIT in 1941 to serve his occupied country during World War II and didn't return to MIT after the war because he had to help his aging father with the family business. He would have been a member of the Class of 1943, but he points out that in June 1943 he was on a Norwegian Air Force mosquito squadron, and in 1944 he was "involved with the invasion. So I guess it is still a mystery whether I belong to '43 or '44," he said.

Bjerke went to work for the family's paint company until he retired at age 57, but that was only one of his accomplishments. From 1963-93 he served as Tunisia's consul general in Norway; he wrote a travel book in 10 languages and an autobiography; he was chairman of two large textile mills; and he served on the board of The Norwegian Shipping and Trade Journal.

Since 1988, he has been working with entrepreneurs on new business ventures, including a perfume company marketing a fragrance under singer Michael Jackson's name and another firm that produces laminated innersoles that suck moisture and odors out of footwear. He volunteers as a guide in the air museum in the Oslo airport and is active in blue mussel farming and in a concern that seeks to produce amino acids from fish waste.

Bjercke is not as interested in earning money as he is in earning his doctorate. "I'm really too old now to give up," he said. "I've worked toward this goal for close to 13 years." In his research, he emphasizes that the Vikings (who never wore horns on their helmets) should not be dismissed as barbarians but recognized as accomplished farmers, craftsmen and jewelers of great skill. "Very few Norwegians know much about the 18th century, so I'm trying to enlighten them," Bjercke said.

With 11 grandchildren, Bjercke and his wife, Berit, 78, keep busy. Their son Leif is the consul general to Tunisia, where he took the family recently for a luxury vacation of good food, excellent beaches and palm-lined pools. "We were all riding camels and horses in the desert of Sahara together--all dressed up like bedouins!" Bjercke reported.

"Even after 82, life can be fun," he said.

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