Sponsored By
An organization or individual has paid for the creation of this work but did not approve or review it.



Ambassadors connect Air Force base, community

EMERADO, N.D.--Marijo Shide and JoAnn Renfrow recall the annual walleye feed that Maury and Harriet Rothkopf used to organize for airmen at Grand Forks Air Force Base.

Marijo Shide (left) and JoAnn Renfrow, ambassadors for the Grand Forks Air Force Base stand for a portrait on Friday, May 22, 2015, at Grand Forks Air Force Base in Grand Forks, N.D. (Logan Werlinger/Grand Forks Herald)

EMERADO, N.D.-Marijo Shide and JoAnn Renfrow recall the annual walleye feed that Maury and Harriet Rothkopf used to organize for airmen at Grand Forks Air Force Base.

"Maury used to bring walleyes from lakes in the Bemidji area," said Shide of Larimore, N.D. "That was such a good event for the airmen."

Maury Rothkopf was a U.S. Army veteran who trained under Gen. George Patton during World War II. He was serving as president of the Red River Valley Chapter of the Air Force Association when he and his wife started the annual walleye feed tradition.

After his death in 1993, his wife carried on his legacy of military support through the Grand Forks-East Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce Military Affairs Committee.

Harriet Rothkopf later was appointed the first ambassador to Grand Forks Air Force Base.


While the Rothkopfs' annual fish fries have ended, the committee transitioned to other events to bring the base and community together.

"That's where the military appreciation day came from, those fish fries," said Renfrow, retired owner of J&G Landscaping in Emerado.

Shide and Renfrow are two of the eight base ambassadors who have been appointed since Rothkopf, who died in 2011 at the age of 97.

Bridge to community

Appointed by the base wing commander, base ambassadors serve as a bridge between the community and the Air Force base, Col. Paul Bauman said.

"Our ambassador program is a group of community members who serve as spokespersons for the base throughout the community," he said. "Having a close relationship between the community, and the base is very important. We always want the community to know what we're doing out here, so we're not a mystery."

The ambassadors are briefed on Air Force and air base activities during at least one event annually, Bauman said. They are invited to attend events planned for visiting high-ranking military leaders and other important visitors. They also travel to Washington to meet with leaders there.

In addition to base ambassadors, Grand Forks has 17 honorary commanders through a program that provides area civilian leaders with a military perspective of the role the Air Force has in the community, nation and world.


The honorary commanders and ambassadors play key roles in the Chamber's annual military appreciation day events.

One of the most visible is an annual University of North Dakota football game in which military members are granted free admission. The ambassadors and other committee members organize the pre-game tailgating party.

This past winter, the ambassadors also hosted a military appreciation game event for the UND-Air Force Academy hockey game at Engelstad Arena. Military members received reduced-price tickets for the game.

"Those are some of the ways the ambassadors are helping to bring the base and the community together," Bauman said.


Shide and Renfrow, members of the Chamber's Military Affairs Committee for more than 20 years, have vivid memories of the emotional trauma that spread through the community when the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission initially targeted Grand Forks Air Force Base for possible closure in the early 1990s.

Back then, the committee mounted a public campaign-Team Grand Forks-to show leaders in Washington, D.C., the level of local support for the base.

Renfrow organized rallies at the base gate to greet BRAC commissioners when they visited the base and community.


She and her fellow committee members called on friends, neighbors, relatives and businesses, hoping to line the gate area with base supporters. The caravan stretched far beyond the gate to U.S. Highway 2, with a parade of cars and trucks filled with flag-waving, banner-carrying supporters.

To top it off, members of the Emerado Volunteer Fire Department shot a red, white, and blue cascading rainbow of water over the motorcade as it passed through the base entrance.

While the base escaped closure, it was part of a realignment, losing the 319th Missile Wing after the 1995 BRAC round.

"Our red, white and blue water has been the talk of BRAC people ever since. I've been in meetings at the Pentagon, and people have brought it up," she said in 2005, as she was organizing another rally during that BRAC round.

Forging ties

Bauman said while virtually every Air Force base has community support groups, including honorary commanders, none of those where he has been stationed has a base program quite like the one in Grand Forks.

"It's unique," said Bauman, who has been in Grand Forks for about two years. "One of the things that's been interesting is feeling the closeness of the community to the base."

His impression is that it has been nurtured by traumatic events, such as the BRAC rounds, as well as flood-fighting efforts that climaxed with the Flood of 1997.


Besides airmen helping with the flood fight, the base provided temporary shelter for some 3,000 refugees after the Red River flooded the cities of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks in April 1997.

"A lot of that has forged close ties between the base and the community," Bauman said. "Not every community has gone through that degree of trauma, so that adds to the uniqueness."

Renfrow and Shide experienced a different kind of trauma after the loss of the 319th Missile Wing in the late 1990s. They watched their neighborhood transform.

"When we lost the missiles, we lost the churches," Renfrow said. "That's the impact I saw."

The Baptist and Assembly of God churches, which were located near the base, closed their doors. The building where the Renfrow family's landscaping business is located used to be a church, too.

Today, one minister serves five small Lutheran churches around the base, she said.

Both ambassadors still stay in touch with many of the families who moved away 20 or 25 years ago.

"The community here feels like the base community is family," Shide said.


While they cherish memories of earlier days, they're still working to promote good relations between the base and the community.

"I'm so grateful for all of the men and women here at the Air Force base. They're the reason for our liberty, our freedom," Shide said.

Looking ahead

The 2005 BRAC process realigned the Grand Forks base again. Over the next few years, the 319th Air Refueling Wing's tankers were moved to other bases, and the base transitioned into a new mission-the 319th Air Wing, host a fleet of unmanned aircrafts, or drones.

The base currently has 12 Global Hawks in its inventory. The 69th Reconnaissance Group, which has 720 personnel, includes three squadrons and two detachments that operate the RQ-4 Block 40 aircraft.

The transitions over the past 20 years-from missiles and bombers to air refueling tankers and unmanned aircraft-have been felt throughout the community.

For example, some 2,189 active duty airmen were stationed in 2008 at Grand Forks, and the base had a local economic impact of $433.9 million.

Last September, it had 1,586 airmen on active duty, and the economic impact was $252 million.


While that impact lags more than 40 percent behind 2008, it's been increasing annually from the 10-year low of $189 million in 2011, the year the first Global Hawk high-altitude drone arrived in Grand Forks.

The Global Hawk is built by defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corp., the anchor tenant in Grand Sky UAS Park and the nation's first UAS technology park, located on 217 acres of land leased from the Air Force by Grand Forks County.

Northrop Grumman currently has about 40 employees working in Grand Forks. That number is expected to rise to 150 or more in the next few years, as the tech park develops.

"Grand Sky will provide many opportunities," Renfrow said.

"It will bring new people, new talent and new new ideas," Shide said. "They just add so much to our community."

Grand Forks Air Force Base ambassadors

Here is a list of the Grand Forks Air Force Base ambassadors and their induction dates:

  • Harriet Rothkopf, 1995.
  • John Marshall, 1997.
  • Don Larsen, 2000.
  • Ken Towers, 2001.
  • Marijo Shide, 2005.
  • James Bradshaw, 2006.
  • JoAnn Renfrow, 2008.
  • Don Fisk, 2011.
  • Donna Wolf-Sholes, 2014.

Honorary commanders

  • Phil Harmeson
  • Delore Zimmerman
  • Carla Younce
  • Kim Strom
  • Patrick Dame
  • Michael Moore
  • Justin Gram
  • Stacey Dimmler
  • Tim Horpedahl
  • Craig Amiot
  • Mark Rios
  • Linda Inman
  • Sheila Bruhn
  • Lowell Schweigert
  • Jerry Youngberg
  • Jerry Robinson
  • Cheryl Swanson

What To Read Next
Get Local