Exhibit honors county’s lone national congressman
By Anna Jauhola
It started with a desk and the spark of an idea to honor Kittson County’s only politician to serve in the nation’s Legislature.
Odin Langen was civically minded, having served on numerous boards such as South Red River Township, Kennedy School District, and Parents and Teachers Organization. Langen, a farmer from Kennedy, served in the Minnesota House of Representatives from 1950 to 1958. In 1958, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served until 1970.
His conservative nature and fiscal watchdog mentality certainly helped put him on the map as the kind of leader people wanted.
When Odin left Washington, D.C., he had the option to buy his congressional desk.
“I think it was $50,” said Wayne Langen, Odin’s eldest son, who still resides in Kennedy.
“I know it was very minimal,” said Lois Pagnac, Odin’s daughter, who lives in Stephen. “It was kind of a token.”
The desk migrated from home to home after his death and when the bulky item – sentimental though it was – became too much, his family thought of preserving Odin’s service in the county he so loved.
In 2010, Wayne, Lois and Wayne’s wife, Kathryn Rynning, began the journey of sifting through the more than 20 years of political memorabilia to create an exhibit at the Kittson County Historical Museum in Lake Bronson.
Two other major pieces played a part in creating the exhibit, which has received numerous accolades. Odin’s wife, Lillian, kept about 40 scrapbooks throughout their lives together, starting in the 1930s. The bulk of the scrapbooks cover Odin’s career in politics and are displayed in a trunk in the exhibit.
Lillian also kept hundreds of personal and professional photographs, many of which are also on display.
“We spent three winters going through all the information and photographs,” Wayne said. “We got together once a week. Eventually, we got started on putting things together.”
The permanent exhibit is set toward the rear of the museum and opened in 2014, said Cindy Adams, museum director. David Danielson, of Lake Bronson, was working at the museum in 2012. He removed some temporary walls before constructing the exhibit at that time.
“They were so generous to give us such a large spot,” Lois said. “It’s such a big area with the walkway going through where we could add my mother’s things to it.”
In all their research, some the best early advice they received was from Lois’s son, Darrin, who is curator at the Museum of Geology at the South Dakota School of Mines.
“He said there are three kinds of museum goers – sprinters, strollers and the studiers,” Lois said. “You need to have something in this exhibit for everybody. Something to look at as they go by, something to read a little extra and in-depth stuff for the studiers.”
Wayne, Kathryn and Lois carefully considered and integrated this advice.
While creating the exhibit, everyone involved agreed it needed to be interactive. Kathryn said it needed to be kid-friendly, so they also placed Odin’s congressional chair with his desk, which features his glasses and a gavel.
“There’s lots that do it. They get in the chair, put on the glasses, bang the gavel,” Kathryn said. “If that’s memorable for them, then maybe when they come back they’ll look at different things that are more for older ages.”
To make it even more interactive, they incorporated a touch-screen display with narration, photos and video of Odin’s life and career.
“Cindy mentioned it would be fun to have some film of Dad. I told her that would be great, but we don’t have any,” Wayne said. “And I started thinking about that and thought, ‘There must be film someplace.’”
After a few phone calls, Wayne discovered the North Dakota Historical Society had all of the old film from WDAY in Fargo. In that collection was a treasure trove of film of his father during his time in Minnesota’s Legislature and at the nation’s capitol. A generous person at the North Dakota State Historical Society said they needed to digitize the film anyway and got right on it.
Wayne said he had a disc in the mail a few weeks later with film they could use — all at no charge.
Through more resources gained at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, including Dan Beck, they purchased the monitor and equipment needed for the exhibit. They wrote narrative, hired a narrator and had help compiling the footage into an interactive program. Beck even helped them install the equipment at the museum, Wayne said.
“It takes a good half-hour or hour to go through, but that’s the best part of the exhibit,” he added.
A good portion of the exhibit also features Lillian and how she participated in Odin’s political career. Her collection of elephant statutes, many of which sat in Odin’s offices, are featured on a bookshelf. Many artifacts, including a flowery pillbox hat, white gloves, a beaded snap purse and other items are shown in a glass case. Many items, at face value, maybe inspire the vision of high society. But Lillian was not a socialite – she was just as involved as her husband. She was president of the 86ers Club and president of the Prayer Group, and organized the National Prayer Breakfast that is still ongoing today.
“And she did all this so nonchalantly,” Lois said.
At one point, President John F. Kennedy had implemented a fitness campaign to get Americans in shape. Lillian decided she and other congressional wives needed to support the president’s campaign. None of them had suggestions, so Lillian led them in starting a bowling league.
“She had these ladies in rental bowling shoes, and every week they bowled,” Lois said. “She had some influence and got them to do it.”
Wayne, Lois and Kathryn took on this project to honor Odin and Lillian, so it was only fitting that they used money left over from Lillian’s estate to mostly fund the project. Wayne said they put in some of their own money as well, but it was definitely worth it.
However, neither one know what their parents’ reactions would have been had they been able to see the exhibit.
“I’ve thought of that from time to time, and I have no idea,” Wayne said.
“I think they would have been pleased we did this, pleased that we thought enough of what they had done and how proud we were of them,” Lois said.
The siblings chose the Kittson County museum over displaying in the Twin Cities not only because Kittson County was their home, but because the exhibit means more here.
“Down there it would get lost in the shuffle,” Kathryn said. “There were many talented people who served in Congress and the Senate. Whereas here, it has the opportunity to influence others who might say, ‘Hey, this guy from Kittson County did this. We can do things, too!’”
Many may wonder whether Odin’s office looked like the display. Lois spent her sophomore year of high school in Washington, D.C., and said it’s nothing like his real office. To make it clear the display was meant to depict Odin’s service in D.C., they had a picture of the U.S. Capitol painted to display as a window behind the desk.
Despite it not being true to the actual office, all three agree they hope the exhibit inspires young and old alike. Wayne said it’s never too early to teach an appreciation for governance. Lois said she hopes older students and adults will recognize some of the historic legislation and events in which Odin and Lillian participated.
“It’s all part of the story, I think. Part of this is you don’t have to be a Rockefeller or a Kennedy to participate or contribute,” Wayne said. “Someone from Kittson County can do it, can make an impact.”