UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

Remembering Lloyd Omdahl

‘Every day of my career in journalism, I used something I learned from Lloyd Omdahl,’ says Mike Jacobs, former publisher of the Grand Forks Herald

At UND’s Spring Commencement in 2002, then-President Charles Kupchella (left) and then-Dean of the UND College of Business & Public Administration Dennis Elbert (right) award an honorary Doctor of Letters degree to Lloyd Omdahl. UND archival photo.

“As a teacher, scholar and public servant, he has dedicated his entire life to serving the North Dakota community.”

That’s the way UND’s Spring Commencement program summed up its tribute to Lloyd Omdahl in 2002, when the University awarded Omdahl an honorary degree. And it remains just as true today, 22 years and more than 1,000 of Omdahl’s popular weekly political columns later, on the occasion of Omdahl’s death on Sunday, April 14, at the age of 93.

Omdahl — a two-time UND graduate who was best known for his column, his long career as a UND professor and his service as lieutenant governor of the state — was a lifelong North Dakotan. He grew up in Conway, N.D., a tiny town — in the 2010 census, the population was 23 — that he now and then poked affectionate fun at in his column, which he wrote for some 40 years.

As a UND student in the early 1950s — he never considered going to college anywhere else, he told an interviewer in 2010 — Omdahl was a member of Sigma Delta Chi, at the time a national journalism fraternity. That meant he was part of the Flickertail Follies, a three-day, all-campus variety show that was run by the fraternity.

In fact, and in a fascinating chapter of his career as a student, “Omdahl managed the Follies one year,” reported the interviewer mentioned above, Brenda Haugen. (Haugen’s in-depth profile of Omdahl was published in “A Look Back: Oral histories from UND professionals,” a campus publication that Haugen wrote in connection with a UND anniversary. It’s available today through the UND Scholarly Commons.)

“Competition to participate in the Follies was hot,” Haugen wrote in her profile. “Often fraternities and sororities would pair up to put on performances of ‘Oklahoma,’ ‘South Pacific’ or other plays. There even were can-can lines — pretty scandalous for those days, Omdahl said with a chuckle.

“Life Magazine even ran a page on the Flickertail Follies one year,” Omdahl said.

This illustration shows the cover and Page 3 of the program for the Flickertail Follies of 1953. The Flickertail Follies was a student variety show at UND from 1925 to 1962. The show was put on by Sigma Delta Chi, a national journalism fraternity; and in 1953, UND’s Sigma Delta Chi Chapter Vice President Lloyd Omdahl was the production’s student manager. Click on the illustration to access the program, which is available through the UND Scholarly Commons.

An opportunity of a lifetime at UND

After graduating with a Journalism degree, Omdahl moved to Bismarck, where he put his interest in North Dakota state government — later, the topic of his thesis for his UND master’s degree in Political Science — and reporting to good use. Eventually, he wrote press releases for U.S. Sen. Quentin Burdick, then became the administrative assistant to Gov. William Guy.

“Then the North Dakota tax commissioner died,” Haugen wrote. “By that time, Omdahl had accumulated numerous contacts around the state who called the governor and asked that Omdahl be appointed to the vacant position. Though he hated to see his valuable assistant leave, Guy bowed to their wishes and appointed Omdahl tax commissioner, a position he held for three years.”

In July 1967, “a unique opportunity arose that Omdahl just couldn’t ignore,” Haugen wrote. At UND, “the Political Science Department had an unexpected opening, and they needed to fill it before the fall semester. Omdahl jumped at the opportunity. He’d teach state and local government in America.”

Omdahl taught at UND from 1967 until he was appointed lieutenant governor of North Dakota by Gov. George Sinner in 1987, to fulfill the vacancy of Ruth Meiers, who had passed away. After that term concluded, Lloyd rejoined the UND faculty and worked at UND until his retirement in 1995.

At UND, in addition to his professorship, Omdahl served as assistant director and then director of the Bureau of Governmental Affairs, where he wrote many studies on issues facing North Dakota. He also wrote textbooks on North Dakota and state government.

About 1980, Omdahl started writing his weekly column. Eventually, it was published in multiple North Dakota newspapers, including the state’s four biggest dailies: the Grand Forks Herald, the Bismarck Tribune, The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and the Minot Daily News.

Though he paused the column during his days as lieutenant governor, his published observations of North Dakota politics, culture and current events, “North Dakota Matters,” continued until shortly before his death.

‘He made learning super fun’

This story by Pamela Knudson of the Grand Forks Herald includes tributes from multiple North Dakotans who admired and deeply respected Omdahl. Here are just a few more.

UND adjunct faculty member and retired journalist Chuck Haga recalled taking one of Omdahl’s classes as a freshman in 1968.

“I took Professor Omdahl’s State and Local Government class, and it gave me a solid grounding as I went on to cover City Hall and the North Dakota and Minnesota legislatures for the Grand Forks Herald,” Haga told UND Today. “In the years since, he became a dear friend and the model of an inspiring, engaged citizen of the republic.”

Haga is one of many North Dakotans whom Omdahl influenced at UND and who wound up in politics, journalism or some other area of public life. Another is Janelle Vonasek, a UND graduate and veteran Grand Forks Herald journalist who’s now the special projects editor for UND Communications.

“I remember Omdahl always had a wonderful sense of humor,” Vonasek told UND Today, recalling her days as a student. “He was a very approachable professor, always smiling and friendly — almost grandfatherly in the way he would tease and make jokes in class.

“I was not a fan of history, but he made learning super fun. He was well-liked by students, and everyone on campus knew ‘to take Omdahl’ long before there was any such thing as Rate My Professor or the internet.”

A model of ‘scholarship, political savvy and personal rectitude’

Last but not least, Mike Jacobs — UND ’70 — knew Omdahl well throughout Jacobs’ years as a UND student and 35-year career at the Grand Forks Herald, where Jacobs served as a reporter, editorial writer, columnist, city editor, managing editor, editor and publisher. Jacobs was editor of the Herald when the newspaper won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its coverage of the Red River flood of 1997.

Keep that experience in mind when Jacobs says the following:

“Every day of my career in journalism, mostly covering North Dakota politics, I used something I learned from Lloyd Omdahl,” Jacobs told UND Today.

“He taught me the language of government and the legal system. He showed me how to assess election results — and to predict statewide outcomes by examining key precincts that reported early. He made me laugh in class — me and about 100 others. He was an outstanding lecturer — patient, cogent, easy to understand and informative.

“In government, he was often the finisher, polishing up policies that governors and legislators presented … getting the syntax right while avoiding partisanship. He was generous … with his wisdom and his book collection.

“He was loyal to his hometown, Conway, N.D., and his family. He loved his wife and his children. He reveled in the achievements of his students. He could be cantankerous, but he was never petty.

“For six decades, he has been a model for me of scholarship, political savvy and personal rectitude.”

As Janelle Vonasek said in concluding her thoughts, “RIP, Professor Omdahl.”