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Column: Cherishing citizenship even after 50 years

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A smile comes easily to Aase Wilking while talking about the 50th anniversary her U.S. citizenship. (Joe Harpring | The Republic)
A smile comes easily to Aase Wilking while talking about the 50th anniversary her U.S. citizenship. (Joe Harpring | The Republic)

Aase Wilking will celebrate her anniversary tonight with friends and family.

The group will go to dinner at one of Columbus’ downtown restaurants.

While she’ll be celebrating it with others, this particular anniversary is really a very personal thing to the Columbus retiree.

It was 50 years ago today that Aase Wilking became an American citizen.

The vast majority of her fellow American citizens might not fully appreciate Aase’s anniversary. Most came by their citizenship the easy way — they were born here. By virtue of that status, many take things like voting and the ability to aspire to elective offices for granted.

Not Aase.

“I cherish it,” she said last week of her time as a certified American citizen. “I’ve cherished it every day of the past 50 years.”

Aase’s road to citizenship was not fraught with the drama that some other transplants had to endure to get here.

In Columbus alone, there are American citizens who began as:

  • Hungarians who narrowly escaped from their homeland before Soviet forces crushed a revolution in 1956.
  • Cubans who came here to get away from the communist regime of Fidel Castro.
  • Vietnamese who sought freedom after North Vietnam had overrun the entire country.

Aase was born in Norway in 1940. The world was at war. The conflict touched her even before birth. Her father, a member of the Merchant Marine, was killed when German planes bombed and sank his ship. He had been denied the opportunity to see his child.

Aase was raised in Norway by her mother through the war years and the peace that followed.

Other family members had found new homes in the United States; and when she was 15, Aase’s mother accepted an offer from an uncle to join the family in Florida. There was a problem. Aase had to complete school and remained behind.

When she arrived in the United States, she was somewhat prepared for the transition. For one thing, she could speak English — or a form of English — when she arrived.

“Actually I learned English in Great Britain,” she said. “When I got to the United States I didn’t anticipate any problems, but I quickly discovered that English in the United States and Great Britain can be different. I ran into a lot of people who couldn’t figure out what I was talking about when I used the phrase ‘water closet’ (bathroom).”

She didn’t immediately apply for citizenship upon her arrival. When she did several months later, she faced a five-year waiting period. In the meantime she remained in the country under a visa.

That five-year waiting period expired when she was a student at Murray State College in Kentucky in 1963. In some respects, her citizenship ceremony was bittersweet. Her mother was unable to attend.

“Although I didn’t have any family members present when I took the oath, I was still super excited,” she said. “Several of my classmates were there, and we had a big party after it was over. There weren’t many immigrants around that part of the country at the time, and the local newspaper carried a story about the ceremony. They even described me ‘as American as apple pie.’”

She came to Columbus in the early ’80s. She raised a son and daughter and worked at the manufacturing firm of Rock-Tenn Inc. before retiring.

She thinks about her citizenship often, especially in light of the national debate about immigration and pathways to citizenship under consideration for those who have been in the country illegally.

“I did everything (to qualify for citizenship) according to the law,” she said last week. “It bothers me that some people simply wander into the country and expect everything. Don’t get me wrong. I worked with some people (who did not have proper documentation), and they’re hard workers; but regardless of that, they should be required to go through the same process I did.”

For today, I suspect that those feelings will be put in the background.

This is, after all, her 50th year as a United States citizen, and the day is another that she will cherish.

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