Obituary: Erick J. Laine ’55

ERICK J. LAINE

Erick J. Laine ’55 died Tuesday, December 1, 2020, at his home in Olean, New York, after a long illness.

From the time he arrived as an undergraduate in the fall of 1951, Erick fully recognized the meaning — and the opportunity — of the University of Wisconsin. For him, it was the hinge between disparaged immigrant and respected American, the portal to a bigger world. He made the most of his opportunity, leveraging his Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering into a long and successful career in manufacturing, and bringing lessons from his years in Madison to every community in which he lived. And he gave back to the university, which honored him with its Distinguished Service and Distinguished Alumni awards.

He was born Erkki Johannes Komulainen on August 13, 1933, in Petrozavodsk in the Soviet Republic of Karelia, where his Finnish parents, Ernesti and Irma (Salminen) Komulainen, had found work during the Depression. Erkki was nine months old when the family fled Stalin’s purges by rowing across Lake Ladoga to Finland. He was four years old when his parents rowed across another watery border, from the Canadian shore of the Sault Ste. Marie locks to the U.S. shore on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

The family settled in Milwaukee, where Ernesti and Irma had first met. Erkki started kindergarten without speaking English but learned quickly — an early indication of his native intelligence. At age 13, he paddled the Boundary Waters of Canada for six weeks with teenage friends — an early indication of his tenacity and risk-taking spirit. In high school, he skated with the West Allis Speed Skating Club, winning a Silver Skates championship, and set pins at Harmeyer’s Bowling Lanes, “double jumping” two alleys at a time to earn more pay.

In 1947, while fighting deportation proceedings as perceived threats to national security, Erkki’s father legally changed the family’s names to Ernest, Ida, and Erick Laine. Two years later, Erick’s brother Tom was born and became the family’s first American citizen. It would take more than a dozen years for Erick and his parents to receive the same status.

Erick graduated from Washington High School in 1951 and was admitted to the University of Wisconsin. In an oft-told family story, when the university denied him in-state tuition because of his “alien” status, Erick requested a meeting with university officials and persuasively explained that he’d been a student in the Wisconsin school system from kindergarten.

At Wisconsin, Erick studied civil engineering. In his second year, he received a small scholarship as the program’s outstanding sophomore. He also enjoyed college life. He found happy homes at Sigma Phi fraternity and in the Hoofers, where he joined the small, crazy fraternity of ski jumpers on Muir Knoll. He and Nancy Herrick ’56 cut a dynamic figure in the university’s social swirl. He took on leadership roles as president of Sigma Phi and vice president of the senior class, and was named to Iron Cross, a society honoring seniors “who have dedicated themselves to serving the University community and have achieved personal excellence.”

As the student speaker at the Honors Convocation preceding his Commencement in June 1955, Erick sounded notes familiar to anyone who knew him then and throughout his life. With his parents in the audience, he spoke of the risks they had taken to bring him to America and their efforts to give him advantages they had not received. He thanked them and all the parents in the Wisconsin Union theater for their guidance, direction, and support, and for believing in their children’s potential. To his fellow honors students, he said, “A contribution as great as that leaves us, the students, with a great debt to pay. I think that we have paid that debt in part by being able to participate in this Honors Convocation. I know we can pay it in full by continuing — throughout our lives — the good work we have here begun.”

By then, he and Nancy had been married for two months, a union that brought Erick into a family line of Wisconsin graduates that included Nancy’s parents, Virgil Herrick ’29, a professor in the School of Education, and Helen Damme Herrick ’32. Erick and Nancy honeymooned on a ski trip to Aspen during their spring break.

Before graduation, Erick had been hired by the Aluminum Corporation of America (ALCOA) as an industrial engineer. Erick and Nancy moved to New Kensington, Pennsylvania, the first of many moves over Erick’s quarter-century career with ALCOA.

Erick and Nancy had four children during their twenty-year marriage. They pursued an active family life: sailing, skiing, tennis, involvement in church and community theater, summer vacations in northern Wisconsin. Their twin sons Erick, Jr., and Peter followed Erick’s footsteps to the Madison campus, Hoofers, and Sigma Phi.

In 1977, ALCOA sent Erick to assess one of its subsidiaries, Alcas Cutlery Corporation, in Olean, New York. Alcas knives made in Olean had long been sold alongside ALCOA’s Wear-Ever cookware. The parent company, which was moving away from consumer products, expected that Erick’s assessment would precede a sale. Erick, however, saw tremendous potential in the small knife company. He led a leveraged management buyout from ALCOA in 1982. He and his second wife Marianne bet everything on the new venture. Erick put up his ALCOA pension and Marianne her fur coat as collateral for the company’s bank loans.

As president, CEO, and Chairman of Alcas (now CUTCO), Erick oversaw its transformation into the largest cutlery company in North America. The son of a union man, he negotiated a new labor contract, ending decades of strikes, and instituted profit-sharing. Erick took a keen interest in the manufacturing process and in the lives of his employees. He greeted every person who worked at Alcas by name, often asking after family members by name, as well. He retired on January 1, 2008.

As a community leader, Erick was especially committed to supporting higher education. He established college scholarships for the children of Alcas employees. He helped bring a Jamestown (NY) Community College campus to Olean and served as trustee for Alfred and St. Bonaventure universities.

Especially, he supported the University of Wisconsin. He established two scholarships for outstanding sophomores: the Ernest J. Laine scholarship to recognize talented engineering students; and, honoring his mother’s love of animals, the Ida Salminen Laine scholarship in the School of Veterinary Medicine. He also created the Erick Laine Finland Scholarship, which currently funds UW students in STEM internships at Finnish research universities.

The Finland Scholarship reflected Erick’s deep pride in his Finnish heritage. Through his efforts, he re-established family ties between Finland and the United States. He discovered a novella that his father had written after the family’s escape from Russia, and had it translated into English. A Grave in Karelia is recognized as a rare contemporary account of the Karelian genocide. When Erick and Marianne bought a lake cottage in western New York, he added a lodge and sauna, built in the Finnish style. Visitors surprised to see steaming bodies run from the sauna into the lake were told, “That’s Erick Laine. He’s a Finn.”

Sisu is a Finnish word that is often used to describe the Finnish national character. The word doesn’t have a good English equivalent, but it can be described as a combination of integrity, courage, and tenacity that is passionately and purposefully directed. Erick Laine lived with great Sisu.

On December 1, as his family gathered around him to sing his favorite skiing and Sigma Phi songs, he gave his paddle one last pull, and crossed to the other shore.

Erick is survived by his wife of 41 years, Marianne Letro Laine; children Kristen MA ’85 (Jim Collins), Erick, Jr. ’80 (Susan), Peter ’80 (Constance Ensner), Christopher (Ulli Valentini); brother Tom (Aleta); nieces Joanna (Vik Penna) and Sarah; grandchildren Kimberly Young ’06 (Tyler ‘06), Michael Laine (Heather Duvell), Kelen Laine, Forrest Laine (Annie Moore), Will Laine ’18, Ursula Collins-Laine, Virgil Collins-Laine, River Laine; great-grandchildren Victoria and Trevyn Young; and extended family in the U.S. and Finland.

A celebration of Erick’s life is being planned for a future date.