Jon Birkeli, 82, of LaGrange passed away with family by his side at West Georgia Hospice on March 30, 2023. Born March 22, 1941, he was the oldest son of the late Ottar Emil and Ruth Jacobsen Birkeli. He was born at home in Ulefoss, Telemark, Norway. As a very young child in German-occupied Norway during World War II, Jon remembered German jeeps rolling up to the family home as he played outside and his running inside to his mother. He also remembered getting chocolates and his first-ever orange from American soldiers when Norway was liberated. Jon grew up skiing, ice skating, riding bikes and making mischief in the neighborhood. In 1958, he was chosen as an American Field Service Exchange Student and came for the first time to America. He was hosted by the Muriel Dellinger family of Newton, NC who became his life-long “second family.” That senior year at Newton-Conover High School forever altered the course of Jon’s life. He went home knowing he would somehow come back to America.
Jon returned to the US for college and received his BA, cum laude, in Economics from Lenoir-Rhyne College, Hickory, NC in 1964. Returning home, he served in the Norwegian military before immigrating to the US in 1965. He went to work at First National Bank in Hickory, NC as Operations Manager, charged with converting the mechanical operations of the bank to computer processing. That same year he met the love of his life, Kay, and they married the following summer. After earning a Ph.D. in Economics with honors from the University of South Carolina in 1971, the couple settled in Copenhagen, Denmark where Jon worked as a Senior Consultant with IKO Consulting Group. He and Kay moved to Split, Croatia (Yugoslavia) for one year on assignment with IKO before returning to Denmark. While living in Europe he was also Danish Delegate to the NATO Scientific Conference on Decision Theory in Practice in Luxembourg. The couple’s first child, Paul, was born in Copenhagen in 1973. In 1975, when Jon joined the management team at Milliken & Co., the family moved back to the States and settled in LaGrange where Kristin, their second child, was born in1977. As Export Manager at Milliken, Jon established markets in Northern Europe, the Middle East, South Africa and the Far East. During this period he also taught part-time at LaGrange College, where he found his career passion. Jon left Milliken in 1983 to start his own business, J Birkeli and Associates, a consulting firm which developed strategic plans for international companies planning to enter the US market and continued his part-time teaching.
In 1987, Jon joined the faculty of the Business School at LaGrange College on a full-time basis and in 2018, he retired as Professor Emeritus. During his 31-year tenure, he served as President of the Faculty Assembly, Faculty Representative to the Board of Trustees and was Department Chair for many years. He was a faculty advisor and taught business, economics, international business, finance and capstone courses. He loved teaching; it was his heart. He relished mentoring and seeing young people fulfill their dreams. And he loved his colleagues on The Hill. He was a true intellect and a deep thinker. He was a hard and demanding teacher, but was always fair and kind. He touched the lives of many, many students, but they, in turn, touched his in remarkable and rewarding ways. Throughout his teaching career, he also continued his consulting work in the States and abroad.
Preceding him in death in addition to his parents are brothers, Dag Erik and Tord Emil Birkeli of Norway. But there remains a host of family, students and friends who will always hold him fondly in their hearts. Jon is survived by his wife, Kay Goble Birkeli, his soulmate of 56 years, his children: Paul Birkeli and wife, Monique, and Kristin Grunewald and her husband, Justin, and also by Yuko Ogura (exchange student from Japan who lived with the Birkelis for seven years and remains to this day a member of the Birkeli clan); and his grandchildren, Jackson Paul Birkeli, Hayes Joseph Birkeli, Harper LilyB Birkeli, Larsen Elisabeth Birkeli, Birkley Theodore Grunewald and Luke Jon Grunewald. He also leaves to cherish his memory his sisters in Norway, Brit Inger Oen (John), Torunn Elisabeth Birkeli and Aina Birkeli Jacobsen (Per Waldemar) and sisters-in-law in NC, Kathy (Joe) Tharpe, Myra Jolly and Dotti Goble as well as nieces and nephews on both sides of the Atlantic.
Jon was a devoted son, brother, husband, father and a very proud grandfather. He was an avid tennis player and tennis fan. He loved soccer, football and being on or near the water. And he loved to travel. He and Kay returned to Norway regularly over the years, and have kept close ties with their family there. Jon relished music of all kinds—but his favorites were classical and gospel. He loved to read and developed something of a reputation from Broad Street passersby, who for years saw him sitting on his front porch reading and smoking his pipe. He had a servant heart. He served on church boards, local civic and international company boards and was a long-serving member of the Kleentex Board of Directors. He was a man of faith and wisdom, strong character and integrity.
In the last years of his life, he developed aphasia and dementia. Even though he lost his ability to speak coherently and comprehend, he still wanted “to help.” He would pick up trash in the College parking lot next door to his home to “help the College,” or at Poplar Creek Senior Care, where he resided the last two months of his life, he took great pleasure in assisting the staff and other residents. He was a sweet, kind and humble man whose death is mourned not only by family but also by friends and colleagues around the world.
In remembrance of Jon, a memorial service will be held at the LaGrange College Chapel on June 10, 2023 at 11:00 a.m. Please come and join the family as we honor and celebrate the life of this extraordinary man.
For those wishing to honor him, donations may be made in memory of Dr Jon Birkeli to :
LaGrange College Scholarship Fund
601 Broad Street
LaGrange, GA 30240
West Georgia Hospice
1510 Vernon Road
LaGrange, GA 30240
St Jude Children’s Research Hospital
501 St. Jude Place
Memphis, TN 38105