University of Minnesota

“If It Isn’t Fun.” – A Renaissance Man in the Forest

Three long weeks our Seven Countries survey team had labored without a break in the forests of Karelia in fall, 1964. We were a devoted field team, but by now were groggy with routine. Everyone was pleased, therefore, to learn of an evening invitation to the home of the local pharmacist, Pentti Turunen. His pharmacy served a large area of eastern Finland from Ilomantsi, a small logging and farming village of 1,200 inhabitants. Mr. Turunen had been mayor of the town and was still in many ways its leading citizen. So it was not unusual that he would honor our crew with a soirée. Our survey was surely the town’s major social event of the year.

The Finnish survey staff was particularly serious, hard-working, and effective. In three weeks, they had examined some 800 men, ages 45 to 64. After this grueling schedule, with little social life in the evenings at the simple country inn of Martta Mikkilä, the team was ripe for “R and R,” and all were lively as we walked through woods to the home of our host.

We found ourselves welcome and comfortable in the Turunens’ bourgeois home, sipping sherry before the evening meal. At dinner, all 12 members of the survey team were accommodated around a large oval table in the formal dining room where we were cheerily served by Mrs. Turunen, with her best china and silver. The conversation was animated as we worked through several courses, starting with hors d’oeuvres of smoked reindeer tongue. There was considerable speculation about the radioactive Cesium concentration in the tissues of reindeer that graze on Lapland pastures contaminated by Russian nuclear test fall-out.

At close of the splendid meal, our host offered tea selections from five large tins. In a modest sort of tea ceremony, Mr. Turunen steeped a silver ball of each tea that we requested, all the while explaining the special gustatory or pharmacological properties of each brew. It was a learned and pleasant formality.

After tea and mints, we were offered a profusion of homemade liqueurs, accompanied again by a colorful lecture on each. Our host first explained his legal access to neutral spirits in his pharmacy, of course, and his hobby of collecting local herbs and berries. This seemed a logical avocation for a pharmacist who lived in an isolated village 50 miles from the nearest liquor store. He held up each handsome container, with its colorful herb or berry displayed, and described the preparation and unique qualities of each eau de vie. Then he served each of us the concoction we had selected according to our taste or curiosity. This, too, was a delightful and educational experience.

The men of our team were then invited to carry their brandy snifters to an anteroom, while the women helped our hostess clear the table and chatted in the kitchen. The men were offered choice imported Havanas from a musty wood humidor. The conversation by now had largely lapsed into Finnish, and I occupied myself by strolling around the library inspecting myriad photographs mounted on the wall. In each, our host was beaming and usually holding an impressive string of Lapland salmon. As I studied the pictures, I was amazed to note the identity of his fishing companions. In one photograph was President Kekkonen of Finland, in another, Chairman Bulganin of the Soviet Union, in another, Prime Minister Churchill, and in another, could it be — President Roosevelt? Each wore a delighted smile, with a cigarette or cigar at a jaunty angle in his mouth, and each was holding one end of a string of champion-sized fish as our host held the other!

I reopened the conversation in English, suggesting to all that our host was either a master spy or one of the more sought-after fishing guides anywhere. Turunen admitted to the latter.

After we had finished our cigars and liqueurs, our host rose and invited us to another salon where we were joined by the women-folk in clusters for stand-up conversation. I resumed my lone inspection of displays around the walls. Framed, under glass, were dozens of mounted specimens of colorful trout and salmon flies, clearly assembled by an expert fly-tier  — our host. It all seemed to fit. Long winter nights brewing exotic liqueurs and tying flies to send as gifts to his prestigious summer fishing companions around the world.

We were then all invited to a mahogany-paneled library to examine bookcases filled with stamp albums. No longer intimidated, we were simply amazed, curious about what marvel might come next. Harking back to my adolescent experience in stamp collecting with its minor specialization in United States postage issues, I focused on our host’s American album, turning the elegant pages in wonderment. Every issue was there, complete, in both mint and canceled form, missing only the rarest issues such as the upside-down airmail issue and the misprinted Pony Express. This collection, deep in the Finnish woods, was one of the top collections of United States stamps in the world, in impeccable condition, and beautifully displayed. I could only assume that the rest of his international stamp collection was equally choice and cared for.

The female members of our team were by now beginning to yawn and talk about how long a day and what a lovely evening it had been. Mrs. Turunen quickly suggested that she accompany the women the short distance back to the inn, leaving the men to their peculiarly macho pursuits.

When our colleagues and hostess had filed out, Turunen offered the men renewed glasses of French cognac, inviting us with a twinkle in his eye to what he called the pièce de resistance. He then led us down the hall to still another library. There, we found an exhibit far beyond the ken of any of our team. Our host brought out immense, handsome, leather-bound volumes with onion-skin paper protective sheets for its priceless lithographs. We were looking at classical erotica of untold richness, dating back centuries. As we turned the enchanting pages, we also were handed objets d’art: such as amber in voluptuous shapes, and ivory tusks carved with gracefully entwined bodies of men and women engaged in erotic activities. Each seemed more beautiful than the last, Nothing was offensive to the eye or touch. The whole collection sharply defined for us the essential difference between pornography and classic erotica, the latter portraying the art and meaning of love-making as a central human activity.

Finally, after thanking our host and saying goodnight, we walked the short trail back to the inn, from time to time shaking our heads and clucking our tongues in wonderment over this quiet, rotund, balding, kind, small-town pharmacist. And bon vivant, gourmet, companion of world leaders, expert fisherman and fly-tier, philatelist non-pareil, and connoisseur and collector of erotic art!


Many years later, at a social evening arranged for the Paavo Nurmi Symposium in Helsinki in 1976, our host, Martti Karvonen, skillfully arranged a visit of conferees with Finland’s President Kekkonen in the main salon of a country fishing lodge. The vigorous old man had recently lost his wife. And just the month before, he had presided over the remarkable Helsinki Conference on Human Rights.

Kekkonen was full of himself that evening, exhilarated over the successful signing of the Helsinki Human Rights Accords, enthusiastic about the significant role that a small country can play in human affairs by sticking to principles, addressing central human issues, and showing imagination and enterprise. The aging diplomat-soldier, near retirement, seemed happy to spend the evening with us physicians and scientists from around the world. He was in fine story-telling fettle.

Karvonen had arranged that we guests would each move forward unostentatiously around the president’s table at intervals of some minutes, so that small groups of two or three people would have nearly private conversations with the president. As my small group approached the grand figure, I had a moment of panic about what we would talk about. I thought about mentioning Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey, recently dead, a friend of so many great leaders and long a friend of Finland and its people. But suddenly it dawned on me to recount the story of Mr. Turunen, the “Renaissance Man” in the forest.

I introduced myself and said, “We may have a mutual friend in Ilomantsi. A gentleman, whose name escapes me, invited our research team to his home some years ago . . .” and then I went on to the story of that evening in Karelia. I had not yet gotten to the fishing photographs when the president laughed, slapped his knee and said, “Oh, you are talking about my dear friend, Pentti Turunen, of course.”

President Kekkonen went on to finish the story for the others, telling about his friend’s mastery of cuisine, brewing of tea, confection of liqueurs, salmon fishing with the world’s great leaders, fly-tying, stamp-collecting and, yes, about his loving collection of classical erotica.

Click to go onto the next chapter.