Amy and Traci on the edge of the volcanic caldera in Oia, Santorini, Greece

By Rhonda Gowen

Imagine you love books, music, travel and learning about your heritage, and you’d like to parlay your interests into a paying job in your hometown. Nice work if you can get it. Two local women did just that, pursuing their curiosity and, in turn, enriching our viewpoints.

Amy and Traci Juhala recently returned from a BSC travel tour to Scotland. Amy, Associate Professor of English at Bismarck State College, planned and arranged the trip, and her sister Traci, Head of Children’s Services at Bismarck Public Library, accompanied her as tour guide in Edinburgh. Both women have spent significant time in Europe working on advanced degrees. How they came to share their experiences with fellow North Dakotans is really about doing the things they love.

Books, books, books. Amy and Traci’s parents were readers. Their homes in Bismarck always had rooms dedicated as libraries filled, floor to ceiling, with books. Their mom, who has a Master’s degree in Reading, always had about eight books piled up at her bedside. She read to the girls every night. The only downside of bedtime reading was if their mom should fall asleep during the telling. If she started making up words, it meant she was floating away. Traci would complain, she’d wake up and they would continue. Maybe simply to stay alert, their mom would also recount stories from her own childhood.

Amy and Traci are fourth generation Scandinavians. Their mother is Norwegian and Swedish; their Dad, Finnish. On lille julaften (Little Christmas Eve, December 23), family traditions abound: They have gløgg (spiced wine) and risengrynsgrøt (rice porridge); On Christmas Eve after early church service, they come home to Finnish oyster stew, cold meats, smoked salmon, herring, a cheese board, a selection of Norwegian cookies, beer and aquavit; A reading of the Christmas story in English and Norwegian precedes opening presents.

Early on, the girls had a healthy amount of sibling rivalry. Amy, who is two and a half years older, relates, “Traci wanted to be able to do whatever I did. I was the first one through the school system, so Traci always encountered ‘You must be Amy’s sister.'”

Traci concurs. “When I was a senior in high school and choosing a college, I was determined to go someplace where no one knew Amy or me,” she said. “So I went halfway across the country to the University of New Hampshire.”

The idea of getting an education overseas grew out of early family trips. The sisters had traveled to medical conferences around the U.S. and Canada with their parents from a young age. Their first overseas travel was to Fiji, New Zealand, and Australia when they were in high school. Over the next few years they took family and school trips to Scandinavia, Great Britain, France and Italy. “[I just had] a desire to know a place better than a one-week visit could allow,” Traci explained.

“I was horribly shy as a child,” Amy recalls. “I NEVER saw myself in anything that required speaking in front of people. Living and studying in Scotland led to more confidence and a greater desire to take a leadership role . . . I want to see BSC develop more study abroad options. Experiencing life in a foreign country is one step toward preparing the global citizens today’s world needs.”

Amy and Traci are grateful for their careers in Bismarck. “I never imagined I would be a librarian,” Traci acknowledges. “I did, however, as a child, think I might want to be a teacher. The reason I became a librarian stems from college experiences doing research at the library. I absolutely loved it. I loved just hanging out at the library, in the stacks, searching for stuff. Suddenly, I realized I might like to be a librarian.”

Amy is intrigued by the energy of college students. “They are, for the first time, pursuing an education on their own, away from the supervision of parents,” she said. “They have so much drive. They are not afraid to ask questions or to challenge assumptions.”

She tells of the time writer Max Brooks, son of Mel Brooks and the late Anne Bancroft, was on BSC campus to talk about his zombie books. “It was so rewarding to watch the students engage with Brooks. They asked a wide array of questions and kept him on his toes. There was never a lack of hands in the air. Students stood in line for up to an hour to get books signed at the evening event. A week later, one of my students was sitting in the hallway reading Brooks’s World War Z.”

With summer and time for reading in full bloom, Amy recommends Australian author Colleen McCullough, the most influential writer in her life. Other favorites are Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series, Kathleen Woodiwiss and Jude Devereaux. She is excited to see Pixar’s Brave, with Scottish heroine Merida. Traci enjoys Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith, Madeleine L’Engle, and for children the Flicker Tale Award winners through the North Dakota Library Association.

The pair also give their travel advice. “The most striking place I’ve ever been is Santorini, Greece,” said Traci. “The most visually appealing city, Venice, Italy, the most magnificent nature, Norway, the most hospitable people, the Irish.” Amy, of course, recommends visiting Scotland, but in the U.S., likes Kauai, Hawaii and California’s Central Coast.

Both sisters are or have been involved in the arts, Traci as cellist, and Amy as violinist. Traci’s favorite composer is Beethoven. “He is fun to play and full of passion,” she said. “I also love to polka, waltz and folk dance. My dream is to learn how to Irish step dance.”
Amy loves Mozart, Chopin and Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals she has seen on her travels, and photography.

Amy and Traci seem to flow in the groove set out by journalist Elizabeth Fishel:
“We are sisters. We will always be sisters. Our differences may never go away, but neither, for me, will our song.”

Rhonda Gowen has two sisters whose tenacious tunes play on in her heart.