North Dakota attorney general's death mourned by hundreds at Bismarck funeral
Wayne Stenehjem's unexpected death has captured the attention of the capital city in recent days. Friends and family eulogized him on Thursday as a figure whose long career in elected office, humor and physical stature loomed larger than life in North Dakota politics for years.
BISMARCK — Government leaders, law enforcement officers and people from across North Dakota came together in Bismarck on Thursday, Feb. 3, to mourn the death of Wayne Stenehjem, the longest-serving attorney general in state history.
Stenehjem’s unexpected death last Friday at 68 years old has captured Bismarck’s attention in recent days, with ceremonies for the late attorney general beginning Wednesday. A law enforcement honor guard processed Stenehjem’s casket up the steps of the Capitol late Wednesday afternoon, a ritual honor conducted for few North Dakotans in recent history. The casket was held in state in Memorial Hall into the evening, with a few hundred people stopping in to pay their respects.
On Thursday morning the capital city’s Seventh Street artery and an interstate ramp were closed for a motorcade that stretched close to a mile long. The procession escorted Stenehjem’s casket from Bismarck Funeral Home to the service at the Bismarck Event Center.
When the funeral party arrived, they met a crowd estimated at more than 1,000 people, among them officials from nearly all levels of government, scores of lawmakers, and representatives from law enforcement divisions across the state. Led by Stenehjem’s son Andrew, a long train of extended family delivered the casket down the center aisle to the front of a stage decked in flower bouquets.
Solemnity was broken up with jokes and memories of the Republican politician's wit and friendly barbs during a series of eulogies, as well as praise and appreciation for the marks he left over more than four decades in public office.
Delivering the first eulogy, sister Peggy Stenehjem-Titus credited her brother for instilling in her values of hospitality, integrity, adventure, service and family.
“It is clear to me that part of his philosophy of life was to live with integrity, a commitment to live honestly, to say what he meant, to have his words mean something, to share his vision, and to treat others — even political rivals — with dignity and respect, even when he wasn’t always afforded the same consideration," Stenehjem-Titus said, adding that many lives were changed by “this wonderful, intelligent, funny, caring, loving man who graced us for a too short 68 years.”
Last Friday morning Stenehjem was found unresponsive at his Bismarck home and taken to a hospital, where he died later that day, just over a month after he had announced plans to retire. His wife Beth Stenehjem was out of town when he was discovered that morning.
The cause of his death has not yet been publicly disclosed.
A cremation and a private family burial will happen at a later date.
After a recitation of the Lord's Prayer on Thursday, six Highway Patrol officers folded a North Dakota state flag, which Chief Deputy Attorney General Troy Seibel presented to Beth Stenehjem.
The ceremony concluded with an end-of-watch roll call by the various divisions of law enforcement were present at the funeral.
Brandon Schmitt, a Minnesota police officer whose wife is Stenehjem’s niece, was one of the many officers in attendance on Thursday.
“This is exactly what I expected. I knew people from all over the state and all over the country would be here,” said Schmitt, who escorted Stenehjem’s wife Beth into the ceremony. “Everybody loved Wayne. I don’t think he had any enemies.”
Mourners who attended Thursday’s funeral arrived to a memorial decorated with photos, an analog watch with Stenehjem’s name on its face, and paraphernalia from the University of North Dakota, his alma mater.
Among the attendees were Gov. Doug Burgum, former Gov. Ed Schafer, U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, U.S. Rep. Kelly Armstrong, former U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who was Stenehjem’s predecessor in the attorney general’s office. Thirty six current and former attorneys general or their staffs were also in attendance from around the county, Bismarck Funeral Home director Mike Nathe said. U.S. Sen. John Hoeven could not attend because of a recent positive COVID-19 test.
Speakers remembered Stenehjem as a figure whose long career in elected office, humor and physical stature loomed larger than life in North Dakota politics for years.
“Ten feet tall and bulletproof,” the Rev. Laurie Natwick, who officiated the service, described him.
“How the heck are we supposed to do justice to the greatest orator that North Dakota has ever known?” said Jim Poolman, the state’s former insurance commissioner and a longtime friend of the late attorney general.
Stenehjem, who entered politics in 1976, spent nearly all of his adult life in public office. First elected to the state House of Representatives, he moved over to the Senate in 1980, serving two decades in the Legislature’s upper chamber.
In 2000, he ran a successful campaign for attorney general, the start of 21 years as the state's top law enforcement officer.
“Of course, on the campaign trail, Wayne claimed Mohall as his hometown. Unless he was in Bismarck. Or Grand Forks. Or Alkabo. Or Stanley. Or Williston. It was a total schtick," said Poolman, who campaigned alongside Stenehjem for statewide office in 2000. “He legitimately felt that every town in North Dakota was his hometown. He had a connection with North Dakotans everywhere."
Poolman also recalled one moment from a campaign drive, when he and Stenehjem were listening to political radio during a stop in Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the hosts declared that the two of them could win their races.
“We literally screamed in the car like school girls, and then jumped out of the car and literally danced around the car as people were driving by,” he said. Poolman joked that they probably lost votes as cars passed, but Stenehjem won that race and went on to take the attorney general's office five more times.
In 2016, Stenehjem mounted a campaign for governor, earning the GOP endorsement but coming up short in a heated primary race against Burgum, then a Fargo entrepreneur.
Bismarck Republican Sen. Nicole Poolman, Jim Poolman’s wife and Stenehjem’s running mate in the 2016 governor’s race, rattled off a long list of accomplishments from Stenehjem’s two decades as attorney general, among them cleaning up the surge of methamphetamine in the state, championing open records policies, pushing for legislation on domestic violence and advocating for the victims of abuse and human trafficking.
“No one in North Dakota politics has had a more consequential career,” she said. “And yet, none of that is what has prompted any of us to be sitting here today.”
Nicole Poolman recounted anecdotes of Stenehjem’s jovial personality, commitment to family, his love for children and his well-known laugh — “Oh, that laugh.”
“Wayne was a classic,” she said, before invoking a friend to say of Stenehjem’s death: “We have lost the last true gentleman to serve the public in the great state of North Dakota.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com.