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An AG's Legacy

by Marnie Piehl

Wayne S.In the waiting room of the North Dakota Attorney General’s office, a composite photo shows North Dakota’s attorneys general all the way back to the 1880s – 29 of them. The majority served in the role for two years or less, some served two terms, but none come close to the 16 years Wayne Stenehjem (’71) has served in the role.

“I see the empty spots in the frame. I look at my term like the professors at BSC who instill lifelong learning. I’m building a legacy of good, honest work for the people who will come after me,” Stenehjem says.

He’s grown the division over the years by adding investigators to the Bureau of Criminal Investigation and establishing new crime labs – ramping up the resources North Dakota needs to surmount big problems.

“We tackled the meth lab problem and took care of it. Right now we’re banding together to get information from pharmaceutical companies [to address] the opioid problem. I don’t know a family who is not affected – or at least knows someone affected – by opioids, heroin or alcohol.”

He tells the staff he hires that the AG’s office is for those who
“want to provide service to the state of North Dakota, to look back and see that you made it better, made it safer, and contributed to the state.”

As one of seven kids, Stenehjem learned how to contribute early on. His dad worked at the Bank of North Dakota, and Stenehjem remembers that he earned $550 each month, and $150 of that went to rent. Every kid in the family got a job as soon as they were old enough, and paid for their clothing, social life, and even the dentist, out of their own pockets. College was financed through hard work and loans from the Bank of North Dakota.

Stenehjem enrolled at Bismarck Junior College in 1970 and, because he took college courses throughout his senior year and the summer after, earned his associate degree in one year. It was at BJC that his interest in lifelong learning was sparked.

“Mike [McCormack] instilled the importance of history. I took every class I could from him. Arnold Lahren showed me how things fit into the real world.”

His “passible English accent” got him roped into some theater with BSC’s legendary theater professor Jane Grey Smith. “She hauled me in from the hallway and onto the stage,” he says.

Stenehjem views BSC as great stopping point for “expanding your world.” “We need those kinds of things,” Stenehjem says – referring to the music, theater, speakers and community enrichment offered by the college. “Education isn’t just two to four years. It’s the outreach and service to community. The impact goes further than that. We need to encourage people – learning should not stop just because you graduate.”

“You know, there’s nothing wrong with knowing things if only to be good at Jeopardy,” he laughs. The nightly gameshow is a family tradition. “It’s just a good thing to have a broad education.”

After BSC, Stenehjem went on to UND but wasn’t sure what he’d go into. “I thought about psychology, becoming a history professor, social work. All my [BSC] classes gave me a background from which to expand.”

It was advice from a family friend that finally pushed him to law school. During high school, Stenehjem worked as a janitor at a hospital – it was repetitive work. During that time, the friend  told him, “if I wanted to do something different every day, be a lawyer.”

The Stenehjem family has a long tradition of public service, and during law school Stenehjem ran for the North Dakota House of Representatives. He opened his first law practice in Grand Forks the same year he first served in the House. He spent two terms as a representative, and 20 years in the North Dakota Senate.

Stenehjem ran for Governor in the Republican primary in 2016, but lost to current Governor Doug Burgum. He doesn’t plan to run for governor again. He says he’ll remain in his current role as long as the voters allow. “I’m sticking with this job – I love this job.”

Voracious reading and extensive travel help keep his perspective fresh and the work invigorating. Stenehjem and his wife, Beth, have been to Rome, Athens and Egypt as well as several other countries. “The history of our constitution can be found in Greece and the forum of Rome. We are part of ideas borrowed from all over the world.”

The work of the attorney general can be challenging, and the object of extensive criticism, but Stenehjem says his “guiding light is doing the right thing.”

“I tell the staff we hire that the North Dakota taxpayers invest a lot in us. Everyone contributes to making this a great state. I want to look back and realize I made a profound difference.”
50 Years Since N.D.'s First Federal Loan
Students encounter a lot of firsts their freshman year of college. In 1967, when 18-year-old Grady Porter went to register at what was then Bismarck Junior College, he secured a truly historic first: He took out the first federally-insured student loan in the United States.

BJC registrar Herb Schimmelpfenig knew of the brand new federal program, and sent Porter down to the Bank of North Dakota (BND) to see if he could find the funding he needed to go to college. Porter left the bank with a loan of $350 – enough to cover tuition, books and fees for the year. The note was signed by BND employee, Marvin Stenehjem.

BND invited Grady and his wife Jeanette to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of that loan last summer. During the event, Stenehjem’s son, BSC alumnus and North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, noted that his dad was very proud of that particular loan and the other student loans that followed.

“Dad said that North Dakota students shouldn’t be denied education for a lack of money. The Bank of North Dakota should be proud of this work.”

Porter had an athletic scholarship to BJC, but knew it wouldn’t pay all the bills. The oldest of five, he says the loan made it possible to go to college. After graduating from BJC, he went on to Valley City State University, graduating with a little over $4,000 in student loan debt. The average student loan debt today is $30,000.

“I made 99 payments of $45 to pay it off,” he says.

BND President and CEO Eric Hardmeyer says that while BND still provides student loans, changes in federal regulation mean that focus is on the BND student loans during college and refinancing student loans after college, including those from the federal government.

“We couldn’t make that federal student loan to you today,” he told Porter during the celebration.

But they did make the loan. And by helping that first student, BND helped hundreds. Thanks to his student loans, Porter was able to go on to a long career in counseling and human services, making a difference for troubled youth at the State Industrial School (now Youth Correctional Center) and later through state agencies in North Dakota and Nebraska. He recently retired.