Lonnie Laffen, a Grand Forks businessman, former state lawmaker and chairman of the local hospital board, died Wednesday, Dec. 23, of a heart attack.
Laffen, 62, served in the state Senate from 2010 to 2018 and for years held the roles of president and CEO of JLG Architects, a firm that has offices in the Dakotas, Minnesota and Massachusetts and has won numerous design awards. In 2018, Laffen recommended splitting the roles of CEO and president and took on the latter role, focusing on JLG’s strategic initiatives, according to the firm’s website.
Laffen, a native of Wimbledon, N.D., represents the “L” in the firm’s name. JLG originally was founded in 1989 by Laffen and Gary Johnson. Another partner, Jim Galloway, joined later. JLG in 2014 transitioned to an employee-owned company.
JLG is in the midst of constructing a landmark building in downtown Grand Forks, named the Argyle, and plans to move its offices into the new building in 2021.
Aside from his impact on local business, Laffen's time as a Republican legislator had an impact on the community and state, said a current state lawmaker.
"He was a mentor in so many ways for me. He was generous and gracious with his time and knowledge and he just did it on his own. I just loved that about the guy. He was so generous with his knowledge," state Sen. Scott Meyer, R-Grand Forks, told the Herald.
Meyer paid tribute to Laffen with a series of posts on his Facebook page early Thursday. Laffen's family confirmed the death to the Herald later in the morning.
"He was a genuine guy and I'm really going to miss him a lot. It just doesn't make any sense right now," Meyer said in a brief interview with the Herald. "Our community truly lost a great person."
Laffen won several prestigious awards in recent years, including the Grand Forks/East Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce’s Henry Havig Award for Community Service.
"It's incredibly humbling. You look at all these people, and all the people before you, and you just don't put yourself in that league. You work hard on all these things to improve your community, and you're not looking for attention," Laffen said in a speech after winning the Havig Award in 2018. "In all that service, what you find quickly is that you get back a lot more."
In 2019, he was among the inaugural group of 10 winners of Prairie Business magazine’s Leaders and Legacies Award. The award recognizes top business leaders in the Dakotas and Minnesota, and at the awards ceremony in Fargo – with more than 200 in attendance – he recognized many faces as friends and clients of JLG Architects.
Earlier this month, JLG was selected as the project architect for the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library, in western North Dakota.
Ed O’Keefe, CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation, on behalf of the library’s trustees and staff, sent a statement to the Herald Thursday morning that said Laffen was a “gifted architect, statesman and philanthropist.”
“Most important were his roles as a loving father, husband, and neighbor to his fellow North Dakotans,” said O’Keefe. “His joy for life and engaging personality lit up any room and every project. The Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library benefited greatly from Lonnie’s all-too-brief but impactful presence. His mind, his eye, and his giving, joyful presence will be deeply missed on this project and across our state.”
Laffen at the time of his death was chairman of the Altru Health System board of directors. The hospital is in the midst of a major construction project, which has been put on hold during the coronavirus pandemic. He served on the board since 2008.
Laffen also was a former president of the Grand Forks/East Grand Chamber of Commerce. Chamber President Barry Wilfahrt said Laffen was a pillar of Grand Forks.
"This is certainly a loss for our community," Wilfahrt added.
Laffen is survived by his wife, Pam, and three children.
He served on numerous boards and special groups, including the Community Leadership Committee for the Grand Forks Economic Development Corporation; the North Dakota Historic Preservation Review Board; the Grand Forks Special Assessment Commission; the Mayor’s Downtown Task Force and the Downtown Leadership Group. He also was on the community advisory board of the Knight Foundation and helped plan downtown Grand Forks after the devastating Flood of 1997.
He also was on the governor’s steering committee for North Dakota Beyond 2020-24 Initiative.
He was involved in Boy Scout programs and was known for his volunteer walking tours of downtown Grand Forks.
U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said Laffen was "was dedicated to the growth and development of North Dakota."
"He was a distinguished leader in his industry and has left a lasting legacy, through the many structures he has helped design, his contributions to future generations of architects and his service as a state legislator," Hoeven said in a statement. "I appreciate the opportunities I had to work with Lonnie, both in government and as a businessman, and he will be truly missed. Mikey and I send our deepest condolences to his family, and we will keep his loved ones in our thoughts and prayers.”
Gov. Doug Burgum praised Laffen for his years of service to the community and state.
“Lonnie left an indelible mark on North Dakota, from the 32 years he spent pouring his heart into building an award-winning architecture firm to his eight years of committed service in the Legislature, to his service in numerous community organizations,” Burgum said. “Lonnie understood how great design can lift a community and its people, from a beautiful school to a stunning sports arena. His legacy as a gifted architect endures in the dozens of iconic buildings JLG designed across our state and region and in the dedicated team members who carried out his vision – as he said, ‘fantastic projects and great people,’ and because of his magnetism, Lonnie enjoyed a lifetime of working with both. Our hearts and prayers go out to his beloved wife, Pam, their three children, family, friends, legislative colleagues, the NDSU architecture community and the entire JLG team.”