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Reaction: Link was a 'tireless champion of the people'

Former North Dakota Gov. Art Link "embodied the notion of civic responsibility" and will be remembered as a "tireless champion of the people," politicians and others said Tuesday as word spread of Link's death at age 96.

Art Link
Arthur A. Link was North Dakota's 27th governor. (Photo from State Historical Society of North Dakota)

Former North Dakota Gov. Art Link "embodied the notion of civic responsibility" and will be remembered as a "tireless champion of the people," politicians and others said Tuesday as word spread of Link's death at age 96.

Link, who passed away Tuesday morning at a Bismarck hospital, became North Dakota's 27th governor in 1972 and served two terms until 1980. Before that, he served one term in the U.S. House of Representatives and 24 years in the state Legislature.

News of his death prompted a flurry of statements from around North Dakota as people stopped to remember an important figure of the Democratic-NPL Party and discuss the legacy Link has left behind.

'A real North Dakotan'

Gov. John Hoeven said Link "embodied the notion of civic responsibility and state pride," adding North Dakotans of all political affiliations respected Link for his "genuine concern for our state and our people."

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Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said North Dakota had lost a "native son" and a "wonderful human being."

"Governor Link left an indelible mark on the state he loved," Dorgan said in a statement. "Art Link's legacy will be his stewardship of the land, his commitment to educate our children, and his determination to make government work for average people."

In a written statement, Democratic-NPL Party Chairman Mark Schneider said Link will be remembered as one of the greatest governors of the state.

"His dedication and service to the people of North Dakota were legendary, as was his steadfast devotion to his beloved wife, Grace, his constant companion," Schneider wrote. "For literally decades, this tireless champion of the people was a shining example of all that is good in public service."

Link was a "true friend" for the state and a "visionary governor," Robert Carlson, North Dakota Farmers Union president, wrote.

'A great man'

Even the man who many would consider to be Link's rival said he was a "fine man" who remained a friend after he defeated Link in the 1980 gubernatorial election.

Allen Olson said he first met Link in 1967 or 1968, after he completed service in the U.S. Army Legal Corps and returned to North Dakota. He went to work for the Legislative Research Committee, where he met then-legislator Link.

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The two lost touch when Link was elected to the U.S. House while Olson went to practice law in Bismarck. But they were brought back together in 1972, when Link ran for governor and Olson ran as a Republican for state attorney general, races they both won.

"We liked each other and respected each other, and so it was easy to work with him, even though we were different political parties and affiliations," Olson said. "The relationship between us was very professional."

Olson said they worked well together as the new attorney general provided legal advisement to the state government, including new Gov. Link.

But in 1980, Link was running for a third term, and Olson said he decided two terms was enough for a governor.

"That was really my motivation to run against him," he said. "It wasn't that I thought he had been a poor governor."

Olson said there was really no negative campaigning in that race. He went on to narrowly defeat Link, becoming the 28th governor of North Dakota. Surprisingly, Olson said there was not even a moment of animosity between the two election rivals.

"I ran as a younger person, more connected to what the future of North Dakota was at the time and he ran on his record, and it just happened that I beat him in a close race," he said.

They stayed in touch after that election, and Olson said they remained friends despite their political differences.

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"He gave the state a lot and didn't expect anything in return," Olson said.

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., told the Herald he will miss Link's leadership and friendship.

"We lost a great man," he said. "Art Link is somebody who will go down in history as setting an ethical standard for leadership in this state that's unparalled and unmatched."

But it's impossible to bring up Link without talking about his wife, Grace, "because if ever there was a team, it was Art and Grace Link."

"I think when the history of this era is written, the good work of Art Link and Grace will be spread on every page," Conrad said.

Link was unique for his rural influences, too.

"I think he was the last of a line of people who grew up on the land, had a deep attachment to the land, and that really informed his political judgments and his leadership style," Conrad said. "And I think it's something we miss very much."

Link was a "remarkable person" who served as a role model for generations of North Dakotans, Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., told the Herald.

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"Art and Grace represented the finest attributes of public service," Pomeroy said. "They were completely selfless and as honest as the day is long."

Link's service continued well after his time in the governor's office ended in 1980. Pomeroy recalled a recent conversation with Link about the need to do something with the roads in the Watford City, N.D., area, which have faced increasing heavy traffic because of oil production.

"And it was not the first call I had from Art this year on issues important to this state," he said.

Journalists react

Chuck Haga covered the 1973 and 1975 North Dakota Legislatures, and Gov. Link, for the Herald.

"When people trash politicians and lump them all as scheming and self-serving, I counter with Art Link," Haga said. "When public life seems crass, noisy and mean, I think of Art Link.

"He was one of the most decent and gracious men I've ever known," Haga added.

Tim Fought, a former managing editor of the Herald, recalled the first time he ever spoke with Link. It was 1976, just after Fought moved to North Dakota, and he needed to talk to Link for a story. So he called the governor's residence.

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"'Yes,' came the reply, drawn out in his manner of speaking," Fought said. "Then there were several seconds of silence before I realized that the person I reached wasn't transferring the call or checking to see whether the governor was available. It was actually the governor answering his own phone."

"I came to realize that he was a man with little in the way of affectation, that he was a straightforward man," Fought said.

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

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