Looking back with former GF Mayor Mike Brown

UND says ‘Thanks’ to the former Grand Forks mayor, who reflects on his time in office and ties to the University  

Former Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown. UND archival image.

In his 20 years at the helm of Grand Forks, the longest mayoral tenure in the city’s history, Mike Brown has staunchly advocated for progress. He oversaw the building of the flood protection system, the expansion of the airport and the completion of the water treatment plant, among many other projects.

The string of successes, which former Mayor Brown attributes to the cooperation that is vital to his cordial leadership style, stretches between two major events that bracket Brown’s time in public office.

Brown, who earned a medical degree at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences, practiced as obstetrician/gynecologist in Grand Forks and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel at the U.S. Air Force. He first became a mayor in 2000, when Grand Forks still reeled three years after the devastating flood of 1997.  As the city attempted to rebuild itself, there was anger and frustration, Brown recalled. He was among the citizens whose homes were to be lost to the flood diversion plan that cleared the land closest to the river and framed it in with levees.

Two decades later, when his opponents waged their bids for the post of mayor, Brown had little time to campaign, as he was coordinating the City’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, which threatened to buckle major pillars of the city and state’s economy.

“We had this COVID crisis,” Brown said. “We had an economic crisis. We had the eighth largest flood in our city’s history. We had the world’s economy going crazy because of the oil price volatility. Everything was going rock bottom, and then we had an election. It was like, ‘What else can we have?’”

Last month, Brown lost his sixth mayoral race to another UND grad, former professional hockey player Brandon Bochenski.

In late June, a day after he formally turned over the reins, UND Today caught up with Brown to chat about his time in office, his views on the blooming town-gown relationships and his plans for the future.

The below conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

UND Today: You formally left the mayor’s office yesterday. How are you feeling?

Former Mayor Mike Brown: On my phone, I found a picture that said “God sometimes closes the doors that you wouldn’t.”  Change is opportunity. I’ve got a new grandson. I have hobbies. It’s time to relax and enjoy the things that we have done. People made a choice. I’m quite content. I’m at peace.

What are your hobbies?

I love to garden, growing fruits and vegetables, and I have flowers on the deck. I love fishing; it’s the art of hoping. I love target practice. It’s like yoga; it makes you relax. I’ve done that since I was a Boy Scout – since I was 14 years old.

Plus, I have 60 years’ worth of stuff to go through, and my wife is more than happy to help me throw it away. When I retired as a doctor, I moved my stuff to the garage. And now, I’ve retired as mayor, so I have more stuff in the garage. My wife has to park outside, and that doesn’t sit well with her.

I have to get things sorted, and Goodwill has been a great beneficiary. It’s interesting how when your life changes, your attachments change, too. I could look at things I have kept for 20 years or 40 years and say, “Let Goodwill have it. It’ll matter to somebody else.” So it’s amazing how you can let go.

Your parents met during the Second World War in England. Your father, your uncle, your brother and yourself all served in the Air Force. Was joining the military something you always wanted to do?

When I was younger, Vietnam was very hot. The U.S. government had a lottery where it drew numbers to see who would be drafted, and I had a low draft number. So, I was guaranteed to be drafted. My mother was English, and she was going to take me to Canada because she didn’t raise me to go to war; but that didn’t sit well with my dad. So I joined ROTC so we could keep peace in the family.

After I joined the Air Force, I was stationed up here as a missile launch officer. And then I got accepted to medical school. Like I said, God closes doors, and he opens doors. That opened the door to medicine.

Why medicine?

Do you know Albert Schweitzer? Albert Schweitzer was a very famous physician who would go to far parts of the world and give free medical care. He was one of my heroes, together with Tom Dooley. Tom Dooley was a Navy corpsman (medic) in Vietnam. He wrote books about how he helped people in that country. They were my youthful heroes. They were very selfless and giving. We find our heroes when we are young, and then we emulate them.

For me, it’s been a privilege. Women’s healthcare has been a privilege. Giving babies a good start is so important to helping them achieve all they can achieve. To support the mothers and the families and to be present when a baby’s born, it’s just a privilege. It is a miracle.

You attended UND School of Medicine in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. How was that?

It was wonderful. Your brain is a sponge, and you’re learning so much. Then, it was interesting to see some people become softer, more accepting of people, more outgoing.  Then, you see other people get harder. And I became more open and more accepting and more serving, the more I learned. That’s why OB-GYN was a perfect field for me because you’re giving selflessly, 24/7 all the time.

I did two years at UND, and I did a year at the Mayo Clinic because we had a program where you had to leave the state for a time. Then I came back to Grand Forks for my fourth year and did rotations. And my first rotation was OB-GYN rotation with Dr. Rodney Clark. He worked at the Grand Forks Clinic, and he was a teacher at UND School of Medicine. I thought, “What a wonderful man!” He was my role model.

Why did you decide to run for mayor in 2000?

Because we had the big flood in 1997. It was America’s largest civilian evacuation since the Civil War. Over 50,000 people had to evacuate. There was property destruction and destruction of lives, and people lost their homes.

And there was a lot of anger in the community. My home was one of the homes that were going to be taken to the flood protection project. Everybody was arguing, and nothing was moving forward. I said, “Stop. I’ll run for mayor.” Doctors make decisions, and military people make decisions. I thought we needed people to make decisions so we could move forward.

People wanted to change. I was that change, but Mike Brown was a very small part of a very big picture.

You have been Grand Fork’s mayor during the tenures of five permanent and interim UND presidents. How has the City and University’s relationship changed over the years?

UND was so important for my success. The town-gown relationship is so important, because UND is a big part of who we are as a community. You see it at the Potato Bowl. You see it at Homecoming. You see it throughout the year at UND events.

When I started as mayor, the University was at odds with the City, was at odds with the County. We were all competing. And I said, “If you win, I win.” For example, a professor brought proposals to the City Council for the City to give seed money to the University for research grants. The University would match those funds. We agreed to do that. I think that helped move things forward in our town-gown relationship – that early investment in our University by the City.

And, as you work together, then you realize you have common goals. And then you win, I win, we all win.

UND is an important partner in who we are. We have our institutional partners: we have Altru and the Air Force Base and UND. We have the City, the County and the Park District. We have to work together to make Grand Forks a place where people want to live, learn, work, play, and stay.

Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown

In fall 2018, Former Grand Forks Mayor Michael Brown became a leadership mentor of UND Honors students, as part of the program’s Leaders in Action track. UND archival image.

You have been a big supporter and cheerleader for UND students. Why is this important to you?

The City Council and the mayor would meet with UND student leadership periodically. That’s so important because when you have a relationship, then you have a comfort zone. And that comfort zone allows you to talk back and forth and say, “This is what I see. This is what I need. This is how we can work together.”

Students are such an important part of who we are. They’re part of the fabric, the excitement, the economic vitality, the service, the events, all the things that make Grand Forks Grand Forks. I have a huge debt of gratitude for what students have brought to me in my personal life and professional life as well as what they bring to the community.

How has the University changed over the last two decades?

I think the University has been adapting quickly to a changing world. There is an emphasis on research. We also have internships in the City, where we bring University students into programs in various departments. We benefit so much from that. We end up hiring new interns because of their knowledge and their dedication. Their commitment really adds to what we have in City Hall.

I’ve seen the University be more responsive, more adaptive. UND keeps leading in so many ways.

What advice do you have for students as they return this fall?

We are so glad to have the students back in our community. They bring so much to the community, energy and vitality and excitement and activities. UND has a well-reasoned and thought-out plan to bring students back as we continue to fight the pandemic. To students, I’d say, follow the guidelines and take COVID-19 very seriously.

What is next for you?

I grew up overseas. I grew up in Okinawa.  I love our home-stay exchange program for our 10th grade students who go to Japan for two weeks, and then Japanese people come here for two weeks. I’ve always enjoyed those visits.

We have a sister city in Sarpsborg, Norway. Our students visit each other. Our students meet their students on Zoom and have classes together. It would be fun to be active in these efforts when COVID-19 restrictions lessen. It would be nice to help champion these things because we expose our children to the world, and then they’re not afraid to go out. We have students who went to Japan and then went to work for Best Buy in Shanghai and Beijing because they saw the world.