Sixty-one years after arriving in New York harbor on a ship from Denmark, Fairview’s Konrad Korff became a U.S. citizen.
After passing his citizenship test in Helena, Korff, 76, was sworn in as a citizen on Feb. 16 in Billings.
Korff had been living in the United States as a permanent resident, but was apprehensive about applying for citizenship because of his limited education. He finished school when he was 14 years old, and left for the United States when he was 15. “You have to study,” Korff said of the citizenship process. “I’m not very good at studying.”
Korff decided he should finally become a citizen after a recent trip to Portland, Ore. Riding Amtrak on the way back to Williston, N.D., Korff’s train was stopped by an officer who was asking the passengers if they were U.S. citizens. “We weren’t even going to go across the border,” Korff said. “But we got pretty close to the Canadian border.”
“We thought this was getting ridiculous,” added Korff’s wife, Mary Ann. “After that happened, I went on the computer and typed in U.S. citizen and immigration and everything came up.”
Mary Ann discovered Korff wouldn’t have to take the full version of the citizenship test because he was over 50 years old and had lived in the United States for over 20 years. “That was when we really figured that he would go for it,” she said.
Korff was born in a small town near Haderslev in southern Denmark. He worked on a farm as a child, getting up early in the morning to milk cows and feed pigs. Much to his mother’s dismay, he was hauling 50-pound sacks around the farm when he was 12 years old. “She pulled me out of the farm because I was too young to carry them sacks I guess,” Korff said. “I was probably showing off that I could do it, but she thought that was too much and said I’ll get hump-backed and everything else from doing that.”
During World War II, Korff spent a lot of time fishing for torsk and eels to help feed his family. “That’s probably what we lived on during the war,” Korff said. “That was something the Germans couldn’t take away from us. We had quite a rough time over there, but after we came over here things were easier.”
Korff arrived in the United States in 1951 with his mother, brother and sister. He was 15 when the ship left Copenhagen, and turned 16 on the ocean before arriving in New York. Shortly after entering the United States, Korff traveled to Minnesota, where he lived with an aunt and worked on a farm. He had worked as a carpenter’s apprentice in Denmark, and initially intended to continue learning carpentry in the United States with one of his uncles, but once he learned how to operate a combine harvester, his interest in carpentry waned. “When I came over here I got up on the combine, they let me drive the combine and stuff like that, so I had no interest (in carpentry) anymore.”
A woman on the farm helped Korff learn to speak English by making him say what he wanted to eat in English. “Whenever I was going to eat, she’d always make me say what I wanted,” Korff said. “I had to say it in English. She made me ask for everything in English.”
After spending some time in Minnesota, Korff moved to South Dakota to live with one of his uncles. He worked for a farmer bailing hay, shelling corn and driving the combine. He also learned to repair machinery, a skill that would serve him well at future jobs.
When he was 22 years old, Korff and his mother moved to California, where he picked up a job as a maintenance man at a steel factory. The factory sent him to welding school, and he enjoyed welding so much that he took four more welding classes. He also met Mary Ann, and they married in 1959 when Korff was 24 years old.
Two years later, Korff bought his own portable welder and moved back to South Dakota. He purchased five acres of land and a house for $1,200 and hoped to make a living as a welder. “I used to go out and do welding for some farmers,” Korff said. “And I bought old machinery they weren’t using anymore and cut it up for old iron, and I’d sell it and save all the antique stuff.”
When it became apparent that welding wasn’t bringing in enough money, Korff went to work at the Redfield State Hospital and School, where he did maintenance work for 23 years. He also purchased more land and raised Belgian draft horses, but began raising cows instead because he couldn’t get anyone to buy his horses.
When he was 58 years old, Korff broke his leg falling down makeshift steps at the state school. The accident caused him to go on disability, and since he couldn’t get down on his knees to weld, he was forced into an early retirement.
In 2008, Korff and Mary Ann moved to Fairview to be closer to their two daughters, Mary Fink, who lives in Fairview with her husband, Jim, and Betty Lee, who lives near Sidney with her husband, Dale.
Since becoming a citizen, Korff said he’s received good-natured ribbing from friends who didn’t know he wasn’t already a citizen. He also doesn’t have to worry about carrying his green card or putting up with the hassles of traveling near the Canadian border. “I should’ve done that many years ago,” Korff said. “There was no real excuse for not becoming a citizen.”