Mike Jacobs: Extraordinary North Dakotans abound

Erling Rolfsrud's book made a deep and lasting impression that led directly to my career as a North Dakota newspaperman.

Mike Jacobs, Grand Forks Herald columnist.
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One of the first books I remember is “Extraordinary North Dakotans,” which was published in 1954. Erling Nicolai Rolfsrud wrote the book. I must have read the book for the first time when I was in the seventh or eighth grade, and it made a deep and lasting impression that led directly to my career as a North Dakota newspaperman.

North Dakota, Rolfsrud convinced me, was an extraordinary place filled with extraordinary people. I’ve never changed my mind. In fact, I’ve always kept a mental list of extraordinary people I meet with connections to the state.

Two of the people on my mental list passed away in the past fortnight, John Scott and Dale Schmid. Both were born in the 1930s and both grew up in small towns, Scott in Gilby and Schmid in Barlow. Scott stayed home. Schmid’s career took him to the West Coast. Both men were deeply interested in politics and followed North Dakota affairs closely. Both were well informed and eager to pass along news as well as opinions.

The Scott lineage is a storied one. The first John Scott came to the Red River Valley in 1879, the second John Scott was a leader of the John Birch Society and an occasional candidate for public office. The third died Sept. 30. The fourth John Scott, called Jack, now operates the farm. The next two generations live there, too, making the Scott farm a sixth-generation enterprise.

I met the second John Scott when he came to the Herald to invite me to open an account at Valley Bank, in which he had an interest. It’s now part of the Bremer Bank system. I did open the account, partly because he asked me and also because I thought it was a fine irony, since I had been banking at the Bank of North Dakota, which is an example of socialism that all of the Scotts have always abhorred.


Scott always arrived with copies of the U.S. Constitution to distribute, and whenever I have a constitutional question, I look for the answer in one of Scott’s booklets. His son took over his father’s efforts at political enlightenment. Much of this occurred along County Road 33, which passes the Scott farm before it reaches a stop sign just beyond our place west of Gilby. Scott would stop me in my walks along the road, roll down the window and proceed to set me straight about the issues of the day. He knew mine from columns. His were more conservative. He called himself “a proud member of the John Birch Society.” Other talks took place at “Constitution Hall” on Gilby’s Main Street.

When he found that the Constitution was under no threat from me, he joked that he’d moderated my views by wiring the former granary that I have filled with books. Alternatively, he would claim to have “spiked” the water supply. Scott was opinionated, but he was never disagreeable. His circle of friends was extensive. His concern for the community of Gilby was bottomless and his checkbook was always open to support good projects. He died Thursday, Sept. 30.

Schmid, the second of these extraordinary North Dakotans, died Sunday, Oct. 3. He attended high school in Carrington – winning the class presidency all four years – then joined the Army and later enrolled at UND, graduating magna cum laude. Then came a job with Haskins and Sells, one of the so-called “Big Eight” accounting firms, first in Seattle and later in San Francisco.

I met Schmid at a North Dakota event in Golden Gate Park. Later I learned about his hobby, a newsletter about North Dakota. Schmid wasn’t a journalist, exactly. He didn’t do his own reporting. Instead, he might be called “an aggregator.” He read North Dakota news wherever he could find it, and distilled what he found into pithy passages, often with a wry remark about motives or intentions. His interests weren’t exclusively political. He also looked for stories about extraordinary North Dakotans. Many of his newsletters, delivered via e-mail on Friday mornings, mentioned people who had passed away. Like Scott, his views were conservative, but also like Scott he was good natured and acknowledged other points of view.

I don’t recall ever reading a correction in his newsletter, unlike yours truly who is fessing up right here:

Wrong again…

In a column printed I wrote that Theodore Nelson, the organizer of the Independent Voters Association, a bitter enemy of the Nonpartisan League in the early 1920s, was Gov. Ed Schafer’s grandfather. His grandfather was Thomas Nelson, an early Leaguer.

…and again…


Veblen, S.D., was named for a local settler, not for the Norwegian-American economist Thorsten Veblen, as I said in last week’s review of “The Viking Heart.”

…and again.

In that same column, I said that Arthur Gustave Sorlie, who served as governor in the 1920s, wasn’t connected to the Sorlie Family of Traill County, from whom the book’s author, Arthur Herman, is descended. In fact, the governor – for whom the Red River bridge in downtown Grand Forks is named – was Herman’s great-grand uncle.


In an e-mail, Herman reported that his father, Arthur L. Herman Sr., graduated from Grand Forks Central High School in 1948.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.

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