BY ED GEBERT

Times Bulletin News Writer

egebert@timesbulletin.com

For much of last week, Lars Overli was away from home. Far away. 4,000 miles away. The days were spent in a country he had never visited. The conversations were in a different language.

Overli is a native of Kongsberg, Norway, a city of around 24,000 in the southern portion of the country.

"It's not really a big city, it's a small city," explained Overli. "But the strange thing is that the multi-national industry is located in Kongsberg. Kongsberg is the headliner of modern technology in Norway. We have plants producing weapon parts for the U. S. Army amongst others. So it's really huge, you know. But Kongsberg is this little, cozy town."

The town dates back to 1624 when it was established as a mining community. But as Europe industrialized, so did Kongsberg. And as Europe modernized, so did Kongsberg.

"The industrial environment developed into being this innovative stuff. The last 20 years it has really grown. It is the biggest in Norway, and the best in Norway."

It is that industry that is the reason for Overli's trip to America. He has come to be able to tell the people of his hometown about what has happened to the workers at one of the plants owned by one of the city's large businesses.

The 22-year-old Overli is a journalist for the Norwegian newspaper, Laagendalsposten. He flew 4,000 miles to write a series of articles about what has happened at the Kongsberg Automotive Holdings facility in Van Wert. After the Norwegian company took over for Teleflex earlier this year, Kongsberg Automotive leadership asked workers to take a 40 percent pay cut to reduce labor costs. When the members of United Steelworkers Local 1-524 voted down that contract offer 303-9, they were locked out of their jobs by the company on April 2.

"That is an article where we focus on the people, how they feel, and how dramatic it is for them and their families," Overli shared in excellent English. "Then I'll be writing about the shareholders of Kongsberg... I found out that a lot of Norwegian funds have Kongsberg Automotive, so a lot of people in Kongsberg probably own a little bit of this."

Overli's days last week began at a Fort Wayne hotel as a young person surrounded by many older guests who were attending a gardening conference at that facility. After getting dressed, he collected his camera, his notes, his laptop and notebooks and climbed in his rented Ford Mustang for the drive to Van Wert.

"I was surprised when the rental company got me a Mustang!" he confided. "It is impossible not to love that car."

Although this is his first experience in America, Overli is no stranger to travel. Like most Europeans, Overli has seen much of Europe, but also Sri Lanka, Thailand, China, Egypt and southern Africa. Still, coming from a town at the southern end of a large valley where ski jumping is popular, the flatlands of the former Black Swamp is a huge change of pace.

Some of the rest of the surroundings are different. Overli was surprised that one day of rain could be followed by a day of sunshine. "In Norway, if you get bad weather all day, it's there for two weeks!" he exclaimed.

But Norwegians are not unfamiliar with America. Schoolchildren learn English in the equivalent of the first grade. American movies and television show are staples on Norwegian TV. But Overli noted that experiencing American and Americans was still surprising for him.

He noted, "In Norway we look at American movies and TV shows everyday. And you get the impression that "Pacific Blue" and "Baywatch" is the reality of America, you know? This is kind of the other side of that. But the people, the workers and everyone else... I've been overwhelmed with the hospitality. It's not like that in Norway. Everyone says, 'Hello,' everyone smiles. It's very cozy."

Overli has had plenty of chances to get to know people in Van Wert. After driving in from Fort Wayne for the day, he spent hour upon hour talking to people - especially the locked-out workers.

There was little time for sight-seeing during his trip. The Times Bulletin staff members were his tour guides, showing him local treasures like lunch at Balyeat's Coffee Shop and the view in front of Brumback Library.

Since he flew into O'Hare Airport in Chicago, Overli said that he did get to see a bigger city. "I got a look at those skyscrapers in Chicago, and I was afraid I was going to have to drive through that part of town!" he admitted. "The buildings we have in Oslo (Norway's capital) are only one-third the size of those skyscrapers!"

Overli has had journalism in his blood since he was small. The son of two journalist parents, it didn't take him long to set his sights on following in their footsteps. He said, "My father is a news editor in the eighth largest newspaper in Norway, so I've always been inspired. Early in school I experienced that I really enjoyed writing to express myself."

Despite warnings from his father to try a career with more available jobs, Overli pursued his dream while enrolling in college. "I went to the University of Oslo four years ago and at the same time I worked as a freelance journalist at my newspaper," he remembered. "And it just became more and more. After two years at the university, I dropped out and did this 100 percent."

Now as a reporter at Laagendalsposten, he is the editor's hand-picked reporter to write a series of articles exposing the business dealings of the industries in the city of Kongsberg.

"I think I'm going to send a couple of shock waves through Kongsberg," Overli predicted. "As I told the workers here in town, Kongsberg Industries is not really a part of the town. No one ever hears from them or sees them. They read the newspapers about the billion-dollar contracts all the time because it's really big, but people don't know how the success affects people abroad. That is what I am trying to express to my readers."

The people of Kongsberg are just starting to get a taste of the company's plans for moving production to lower-cost countries - something which could soon affect workers in Norway as well. The trend has already hit neighboring Sweden, where one factory has already been moved to Poland and a second may be doing the same later this year. Overli noted that he may be making a similar trip to Poland this fall, perhaps delaying his plans to continue his college studies.

A trip to the Kongsberg plant in Van Wert did not make a big impact on Overli. "The facility is just a plant," he commented. "It's the people that fascinate me. How they hang in there in the situation and how they support each other, and as I said, their hospitality even though they are having a hard time. It's really impressive. They have all my sympathy."

Overli's days in America each ended the same way. "I headed back to Don Halls' guesthouse, where all the old people are with their gardening conference, and I locked myself into my room and started writing!" he smiled.

Fortunately, Overli's English is more than passable. Only the occasional expression trips him up. Aside from Norwegian and English, he also spent six years studying German in school. But don't ask him to speak any German. "I don't manage it," he admitted. "It's a horrible language. I wish I had learned Spanish or French."

Before leaving America, Overli hoped to take advantage of a few bargains in this country. The cost of living in Norway is much higher than the United States, so a question about four dollar a gallon gasoline brought a grin to Overli's face. "That's a trick question!" he declared.

Still, the Kongsberg native realized that rising fuel prices is common, even though the cost is much higher back in his home country. He shared, "I know that the gas price has doubled in two years or something like that here. So I understand that it makes people angry. But in Norway it is three times higher than it is here. But obviously the wages are higher, so it's the same. You get to buy the same amount for your wages. The difference between us is really not so big."