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'Mr. Grand Forks' dies at 74

The former high school government teacher and history buff sometimes known as "Mr. Grand Forks," earned that title for his unmatched knowledge of city history and ability to share that knowledge in an interesting, informative way, family and frie...

Ted Jelliff
Ted Jelliff

The former high school government teacher and history buff sometimes known as "Mr. Grand Forks," earned that title for his unmatched knowledge of city history and ability to share that knowledge in an interesting, informative way, family and friends said Monday.

Ted Jelliff passed away Saturday in Grand Forks from complications of open- heart surgery. He was 74.

"I don't think there's anyone probably in this city who loves Grand Forks as much as he did and who knows as much as he did about the history of Grand Forks," his wife, Jan, said. "It was just one of his passions."

Jan said he had a "phenomenal" memory, seemingly remembering every person he'd ever seen or talked with. They would have celebrated their 45th anniversary July 31.

And he was a great storyteller, Jan said. Ted's daughter was sometimes embarrassed of her dad's "groaner jokes," Jan said, because he seemed to have a joke for every occasion.


But getting into a conversation with Ted sometimes required a time commitment.

"We always kind of teased him because he assumed that whatever he was interested in and had a passion for that everyone else was interested in, too," Jan said. "You could expect to be at it for a while."

Ted's family is asking that memorials be made in his name to some of the organizations that were close to his heart: the Grand Forks County Historical Society, United Lutheran Church, Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra and UND's Athletics Department.

Visitation will be held from 5:30 to 7 tonight, with a 7 p.m. prayer service in Amundson Funeral Home. Jan said she hopes friends and family members can share stories about Ted during the prayer service.

'One of a kind'

Ted was born in Grand Forks in 1936 and graduated from Central High School in 1954. He started his teaching career in Niagara, N.D., before switching to Central in 1963, then to Red River High School in 1967.

He mostly taught government classes to senior students before retiring in 1993, but former Red River principal Everett Knudsvig said Ted also put his passion for history into the lessons.

The "one of a kind" man had a knack for taking historical information and presenting it in an interesting way, whether it was for high school students or community organizations.


"He made it more than understandable," Knudsvig said.

And there was no stumping Ted about the city's history.

"I wouldn't even try to get into a debate," he said. "He did love the history and he was a man that studied it and it wasn't off the cuff. He knew what he was talking about."

Former Grand Forks Superintendent Mark Sanford said it was easy to get to know Ted.

"Every time you were in the building and ran into him was a chance to have good visits and I enjoyed it because it was always collegial and always informative," he said.

Sanford said Ted was always researching and wanting to learn. "When you had a conversation with him, you couldn't help but learn something," he said. "I would say he was a scholar and a gentleman; those are the two words that really jump out at me."

And while Ted was interested in "everything," from music to government to sports, his knowledge of history was something he shared with students statewide. Ted's textbook about North Dakota's history, last revised in 2007, is still in use today.

History buff


Leah Byzewski said it was "a little weird" at first when she started volunteering as a tour guide for the Grand Forks County Historical Society -- the group's executive director was Ted, her government and North Dakota history teacher while she was a Red River senior in 1983.

"It took a while to get used to calling him Ted instead of Mr. Jelliff," she said.

Byzewski remembers Ted as always being "really friendly" and willing to share stories in class, and it seemed like he was always busy working on a project.

"Most everything that I know about Grand Forks I learned from Ted," she said. "He had a way of speaking where he wasn't monotonous at all, and you could tell he was enthusiastic about his subjects."

Byzewski said Ted was really good to work for at the historical society, and he stayed involved after she became executive director about eight years ago.

She didn't personally call him Mr. Grand Forks, but said if someone made a motion for that to be Ted's nickname, "I would second that."

"I swear Ted had a story about every building in town," said Peg O'Leary, coordinator of the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission.

Ted served as a historian for the commission since 1993. She said he was a "very curious" person who happened to be curious about buildings and history.


O'Leary worked with Ted on a number of special projects, and he also led tours of the downtown area. Those tours often took a "very long time" because he knew so much about the buildings, but people always had a good time.

"Dates and times and buildings don't stand on their own," O'Leary said. "You need to tie them to people, and Ted could always do that."

She said he could talk about the earliest Grand Forks settlers "like he knew them," and his passing will leave a "huge gap" in the knowledge of the city.

"We always said we just needed to walk the streets with Ted and a tape recorder," O'Leary said. "It didn't happen. You always think you have a lot of time, and we didn't."

'A passion for life'

Jan said history might have been Ted's big "passion," but he had many other interests. He loved all kinds of music, particularly classical and Dixieland.

Ted "immediately volunteered" to write a book about the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra's history for its 100th anniversary, which was published in November.

His love for music was shared by Tom, his identical twin brother and a former Grand Forks County State's Attorney. Ted played the bass drum in the Elks Band and the Grand Forks City Band, and Tom played drums for a number of local bands before passing away in 2003.


Ted would get together with his twin brother to build models of several Grand Forks landmarks, such as the original Metropolitan Theater.

"They were like two kids in a candy store when they were sitting out in the garage," she said.

Ted enjoyed golfing, and liked to ice-skate every morning when he and Jan weren't spending winter months in Arizona.

Ted was a sign painter as well, painting billboard-sized signs and trucks for a while. It was something he was "really good" at, Jan said, and Ted was never happier than when he would spend time working on a sign for someone's lake cabin while listening to classical music.

Jan said he took "such total pleasure and joy in being a grandpa," a role he didn't get to play for too long. Their five grandchildren are six and under.

Ted enjoyed playing and reading with his grandkids, and Jan said she's sure he would have instilled his passion for history in them as they got a little older.

"He was a good history teacher," she said. "He could bring it alive."

Johnson reports on local K-12 education. Reach him at (701) 780-1105; (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or send e-mail to rjohnson@gfherald.com .

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