Grand Forks remembers Wayne Stenehjem as 'great North Dakotan' who wanted to 'greater good for the people'
Attorney general, who died unexpectedly Friday, graduated from UND and spent years representing the city in the Legislature before moving on to attorney general position.
GRAND FORKS — Peter Johnson first met Wayne Stenehjem, North Dakota’s late attorney general, at the Christus Rex Center on the UND campus. Like many others in the Grand Forks community and across the state, Johnson remembers Stenehjem as a smart, talented person dedicated to his university and his state.
Johnson, who is now with UND’s Alumni Association and Foundation, said he first met Stenehjem in 1976, when he was a freshman and when Stenehjem was in law school. They met while having a meal at Christus Rex, and the pair became friends. Johnson said with Stenehjem's death last week, the state lost an earnest and genuine public servant, and that UND and the law school lost a longtime supporter and benefactor.
Stenehjem, 68, died unexpectedly on Friday, Jan. 28 . On Monday, UND faculty members and administrators, as well as local lawmakers and public figures, spoke to the Herald and gave their memories of him.
Universally, they spoke of Stenehjem’s impact on Grand Forks and the state as a whole.
“I've known him for a long time and we shared a love of being Norwegian, love of being North Dakotans, (and) love of the university,” Johnson said. “It was my opportunity and pleasure in my professional life to work with him on a number of things over the years.”
Johnson said he remembers Stenehjem for his intelligence — being an avid trivia player at locations across Grand Forks while he lived here — his humor and his integrity. He said Stenehjem’s death is a loss for the university and the law school, which he supported over the years.
Rob Carolin, who spent more than 15 years at UND’s School of Law as director of alumni and public relations and is now chief of staff in President Andrew Armacost’s office, said he was shocked at the news of Stenehjem’s death. From working with the school’s legislative internship program to mentoring students and returning to the school to speak in lectures, Stenehjem was a force in the school’s history since he graduated in 1977, and he particularly enjoyed the swearing in ceremony in Bismarck for newly-minted attorneys.
“He was such a trusted adviser. He was a proud alum,” Carolin said. “He was a person that we looked to for support for the things that we were doing here for our students.”
Michael McGinniss, dean of the law school, said Stenehjem always wanted to inspire new graduates to be responsible professionals. It was part of his character, to display genuine interest in people and their careers.
With Stenehjem’s death, the law school lost an important ally and voice in the Legislature, McGinniss said. Lawmakers listened to him because of his credibility and character, and he was a force in helping improve funding levels to the school, after a downturn in commodity markets caused it to be reduced.
“I'm grateful to him, and the whole law school is to this day for the work that he and our allies did to lead us to some really better places through the additional funding,” McGinniss said.
Funeral services for Stenehjem will be at 11 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 3, at the Bismarck Event Center Exhibit Hall. Visitation will be from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 2, at the Great Hall in the North Dakota Capitol building.
Stenehjem was born in western North Dakota and graduated from Bismarck High School before coming to UND. He was elected numerous times to the state Legislature, where he served 24 years, before he was elected attorney general in 2000. He won that seat five times and was the longest serving attorney general in North Dakota history. In December, he had announced his plans to retire later in 2022.
News of his death Friday — no cause has been announced — reverberated across the state.
"I've been in law enforcement in North Dakota since 1984, so obviously as I've moved up through the ranks my interaction with Wayne would have been more impactful, more meaningful. I will tell you this, there was no greater champion for North Dakota law enforcement than Wayne Stenehjem,” said Grand Forks Police Chief Mark Nelson. “You always felt like when you talked to him about something he took it to heart — he wasn't just a politician speaking to you. It will be a big void to have Wayne gone.”
Nelson, a member of the Chiefs of Police Association for North Dakota, said Stenehjem often would attend meetings, listening to concerns or offering updates. Nelson also said Stenehjem offered kind words at a state event at which slain Grand Forks Police Officer Cody Holte was honored.
“(It was) very respectful, very impactful and very true to the character of Wayne," Nelson said.
Todd Feland, Grand Forks’ city administrator, called Stenehjem “a common guy that wanted to do the greater good for the people.”
"He was such a down-to-earth guy and had a real touch with representing the people as the attorney general. Obviously, Grand Forks, we had a special place in our heart for Wayne because he was a UND grad and then a UND resident and represented Grand Forks in both the state House and state Senate,” Feland said. “We had a long-term relationship with Wayne and it was always great to see Wayne back in Grand Forks at UND events and Grand Forks events.”
David Dodds, a UND spokesman, called Stenehjem “a great North Dakotan and a proud UND alum.”
Amy Whitney, director of the UND’s Center for Excellence, this week recalled a 2018 UND bus trip across the state for new faculty members and administrators that led to an impromptu meeting with Stenehjem.
“I think one of the things from that bus trip that stood out to me as someone that was new to North Dakota and UND, is the ardent passion that people have for UND and how much pride they have in both North Dakota and also the university,” Whitney said. “Truly (Stenehjem) was someone with all that.”
Said DeAnna Carlson Zink, CEO of the UND Alumni Association and Foundation: “There were many times where I'd be in Bismarck for the legislative session and have UND students with me and I'd say ‘let's stop by Wayne's office.’ He was always there with a handshake and talking to the students and wanting to know where they were from, and what they were pursuing.”
UND President Andrew Armacost called Stenehjem "a true giant" in North Dakota.
"As a graduate of UND and the UND School of Law, he offered incredible leadership to our North Dakota citizens for many years. We will keep the Stenehjem family in our thoughts and prayers as they search for peace in the wake of this tragedy,” Armacost said.
Sen. Curt Kreun, who represents Grand Forks in the Legislature, remembered Stenehjem, as attorney general, walking state leaders through some of the issues that have come to define Grand Forks, such flood protection plans after the deluge of 1997 and UND's contentious mascot change.
“He had a way of giving you the legal technicalities of both sides and a way to guide you through some of these issues,” Kreun said.
And Stenehjem himself had a personality — a presence — that could fill a room.
“Being 6’4, or whatever it was, doesn’t hurt,” Sen. Ray Holmberg, a longtime state lawmaker, told the Herald. “He would engage with people, no matter who they were and where they were coming from. Whether they were people who were supportive of him or someone who had a concern or a criticism.”
Both Stenehjem and Holmberg were elected to the North Dakota Senate in the 1970s and they worked together for decades.
Holmberg said he'll most remember Stenehjem’s passion for open government — which didn’t cool during the former attorney general’s lengthy career as an elected official. Stenehjem’s office routinely chastised governments across North Dakota for violating the state’s open-meeting laws, not handing over public records when asked, and so on.
“When you have a politician that’s been around a while, they usually go from here, to there, to there, to there with an issue du jour,” Holmberg said. “But with Wayne, open government was number one at the beginning and was still there at the end.”
The Herald's Joe Bowen and Meghan Arbegast contributed to this report.