Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame
A native of Epping, ND, Arley Bjella grew up during the Depression after his father had emigrated from Norway in 1889. Arley was only two years old when his mother died, but despite the difficult circumstances in his early childhood, he grew up to study law and today is chairman of the board of directors of Lutheran Brotherhood.
His father, Alse, instilled him the desire to work hard and succeed. Asle was an active Lutheran layman and state legislator who was a blacksmith by trade. After the death of Arley’s mother, Clara, the people of Epping helped look after him, something he hasn’t forgotten today.
Bjella graduated from the University of North Dakota Law School in 1941, but World War II interrupted his law career. He was among the first troops to enter Buchenwald, the most notorious of the Nazi death camps, and he later helped try Nazi war criminals at Dachau. The atrocities at Buchenwald are something he has never forgotten.
In 1948, he married Beverly Heen of Grand Forks and was named Outstanding Young Man of North Dakota by the Jaycees. Two years later he formed a law partnership at Williston.
When the oil basin in Williston boomed, Bjella’s firm became general counsel for the largest oil producer in the basin. Bjella and his partner were great influences on North Dakota’s conservation-minded oil and gas laws.
Bjella became a successful community organizer and fundraiser, and eventually a politician. From 1959 to 1962 he was state chairman of the Republican Party. In 1970 he left North Dakota to become chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Lutheran Brotherhood in Minneapolis. During his time there, the society grew from a company with about $580 million in assets to more than $3 billion today. He remains chairman, but retired from the chief executive post in 1982 at the age of 65.
Community service remains a large part of his life. He is director and past president of the Downtown Development Corporation, a trustee and member of the executive committee of Fairview Community Hospitals and director of the Greater Minneapolis Metropolitan Housing Corporation, the Industry Square Development Company, the Minnesota business Partnership, and the Norwegian American Chamber of Commerce. He also has several other affiliations in which he is active.
He holds honorary degrees from Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania and from Concordia College at Moorhead, Minn. He has received the Humanitarian Award from the National Jewish Hospital and National Jewish Center at Denver. He was awarded the Knight’s Cross, First Class, Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olaf by the Norwegian government.
He and his wife, Beverly, have two sons and one daughter.