A Life's Story
July 16, 2022
'Our anchor and our compass'
As longtime matriarch of city's Swedish community, Gunvor Larsson welcomed game-changing Jets players, helped found Folkorama
By: Geoff Kirbyson
Gunvor Larsson didn’t play for the Winnipeg Jets but she just might have been the most important Swede in town in the mid-1970s.
The longtime matriarch of the Winnipeg’s Swedish community rolled out the blue and yellow welcome mat when Lars-Erik Sjoberg, Thommie Bergman, Ulf Nilsson, Anders Hedberg and Willy Lindstrom blazed a trail across the Atlantic. She and her husband Karl opened their home to them, having them over for traditional Swedish meals and celebrations so they didn’t get homesick and adapted as quickly as possible to their new environment. They wanted their countrymen to shine.
And shine they did, helping transform hockey. Gunvor and Karl deserved a big assist when Winnipeg put its unmistakable stamp on the international hockey scene.
Those hockey players have long memories, too. When they were in town to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their 1978 AVCO Cup triumph in the spring of 2018, they made a point of coming by the local Swedish contingent’s table at the gala luncheon to visit with Larsson.
“Gunvor welcomed them all. Lindstrom and Sjoberg were the main ones. The players’ wives helped her with the cultural events and she’d look after their kids. She even taught some of them Swedish. They were really connected. Gunvor was all about food and fellowship and fun. She was so Swedish,” says her longtime friend Sonja Lundstrom.
“She knew the players as people. She didn’t see them visiting her table as a big deal. She was just so happy to see them, it was natural for her. ‘Of course, they’re going to come and see me.’”
In fact, Gunvor and Karl were the godparents for Lindstrom’s children and flew to Edmonton in the mid-1980s for one of their baptisms, which was also attended by an up-and-coming player named Wayne Gretzky.
And when Christina Sjoberg came to Winnipeg to see her late husband’s jersey raised to the rafters of the MTS Centre three years ago, she visited just one person when she was in town — Larsson.
“Gunvor was our anchor and our compass. She kept us on track. She was always getting us to go one step further. She had so much energy,” Lundstrom says.
Long after the initial Swedish hockey players had left town, Gunvor continued to roll out her unique version of the Welcome Wagon, putting on a “fika” — Swedish for coffee and cake break – to welcome Swedish students who came to Winnipeg to go to university.
Larsson died on May 14, just three months short of her 99th birthday. She was predeceased by Karl, to whom she was married for 66 years, in 2013. She is survived by her son, Ben (Evelyn); grandsons, Matthew and Daniel (Crystal), and many nieces and nephews in Sweden.
You didn’t need to have Swedish blood to learn the language from Larsson. She taught Swedish for 40 years at a variety of places, including Kelvin High School, St. John’s High School, Vasa Lodge and from her home.
If you enjoyed the meatballs and brännvin — literally “burn-wine” — at Folklorama, you can thank Larsson, too. She was a founding member of the two-week mid-summer cultural extravaganza and oversaw the first Swedish pavilion. She volunteered and attended Folklorama for more than 50 years in her national costume — which she made herself, naturally –—and often helped out with the food preparation during the day.
“Folklorama is better than Christmas,” Gunvor would often say.
Gunvor also taught Swedish dancing to young children and adults alike, entering them in competitions around North America.
“She was dynamite. Dancing is part of our culture, Swedes love to dance and Karl and Gunvor were the model of it. We take an accordian wherever we go,” Lundstrom says.
Mari Clovechok, who immigrated from Sweden to Canada in the mid-80s, met Larsson when she moved to Winnipeg in 1993.
“We adopted each other’s family. We celebrated birthdays, holidays and Christmas together. My biological family lives in Sweden. She and Karl were our family for so many years,” she says.
“What a positive outlook on life she had. She was intelligent, full of humour and the most wonderful friend you could ever ask for. She had so many friends of all ages. You were lucky to be in their circle and their circle was huge. They knew so many people together.”
Gunvor and Karl decided to move to Winnipeg in 1958 on a three-year trial. They never left.
“Karl was an electrician. He had a job lined up. They decided they would come here as an adventure for three years. It turned into an adventure of a lifetime,” she says.
One part of the adventure might have deterred many would-be immigrants. Gunvor didn’t speak English. No worries. She taught herself to read and write and went on to work as a secretary/bookkeeper for Ogilvie Flour Mills, Carlson Painting and Decorating, the Swedish Consul and Larsson Electric. She also ran her own business, the Scandinavian Import Boutique from 1974-80.
She was known for always telling her guests and would-be guests that “coffee is always on” and you couldn’t enter her apartment without sampling some of her legendary open-faced sandwiches or coffee buns.
She loved to bake and cook so much that she even produced a number of cookbooks, including Gunvor’s Temptations – its recipes were featured in the Winnipeg Tribune – and Gunvor’s Gems, which was published last year.
Gunvor was also a regular contributor to the Swedish Press, a monthly Swedish magazine that’s distributed internationally.
Gunvor maintained an active lifestyle well into her golden years. It all started as a young girl in Östersund, when she would go to school either by cross-country skis or a kicksleigh known as a “spark.” First manufactured in Sweden in 1909, this unique sled features a chair mounted on a pair of flexible metal runners that extend backwards and are about twice the length of the chair. The sled is propelled forward by kicking the ground with your feet.
Gunvor was particularly excited to see that sparks were being sold last winter at The Forks.
Gunvor and Karl would often go on biking holidays, too.
“They loved the outdoors. They’d pick berries and mushrooms,” Clovechok says.
Even though Gunvor was often leading the way in Swedish-themed events, she was never too busy to show her appreciation to everyone else who lent a hand in whatever banquet/parade/camping expedition in which she was involved.
“She’d say, ‘thank for everything and all of the things I forgot to thank you for,’” Clovechok says.
Gunvor was honoured two years ago as an “Honour 150 recipient,” a recognition given to just 150 Manitobans during the province’s 150th birthday celebrations, for their role in making the province into the place it is today.
When Lundstrom, who nominated Larsson for the Honour 150, visited Larsson in early May, she leaned in to tell her dear friend how much everybody whose lives she had touched felt about her. They loved her, she said.
“I love you,” she replied in a whisper.