A look back at past presidential encounters involving UND and its people
The University of North Dakota has crossed paths with several of our nation’s commanders-in-chief over the years.
In fact, current UND President Ed Schafer served as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in the Cabinet of President George W. Bush.
From campaign swings through the Upper Midwest to a national championship team visit to the White House, UND has been front and center in the attention of at least six men who were or would one-day become presidents of the United States: Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and our sitting president, Barack Obama.
In honor of Presidents Day, we are reflecting on those occasions through the first-hand accounts of local media and UND public relations staff members who witnessed and covered the events.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt toured the campus last Oct. 4 (1937), the occasion being his first visit to Grand Forks. Democrats and Republicans alike turned out to make this definitely an “event.” University Avenue and campus drives were lined with students and faculty members, anxious to get a close-up of the famous Roosevelt smile. For a few minutes, the President’s car stopped in front of Merrifield hall, where he was welcomed by President [John C.] West of the University, and introduced to several faculty members. In the car with FDR was [then North Dakota] Governor William Langer, a graduate of the University. Numerous other dignitaries played a part in the presidential reception, among the foremost, J.F.T. O’Connor, Roosevelt’s Comptroller of the Currency, and also a graduate of UND, and Senator Gerald P. Nye.
From The 1938 Dacotah annual
President Kennedy whisked into Grand Forks Wednesday (Sept. 25, 1963) in a modern jet-and-helicopter version of the old railroad whistle-stop and thrilled thousands in an appearance and speech at the University of North Dakota. The crowd was estimated at 10,000 inside the huge building and police said that there were enough in the area nearby outside to fill it again. Thousands of people ringed snow-fence barriers, which surrounded the temporary heliport where the President’s helicopter landed after a flight from the Grand Forks Air Force Base where the big jets were left.
In addition to a ringing plea for conservation of natural resources, the President was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree by UND. Kennedy had newsmen scrambling for their pencils as he gave a different talk, although along the same lines, than the one handed out in advance. His press secretary, Pierre Salinger, said a complete text of what Kennedy said here would be passed out at the next stop in Wyoming.
Grand Forks Herald, Sept. 25, 1963 (Editor’s note: JKF would be assassinated less than two months later in Dallas on Nov. 22)
In his second visit to campus in three years, former Vice President Richard M. Nixon spoke to a large crowd in the UND Fieldhouse in October 1965. As vice president, Nixon has visited the University in September 1960 during his campaign for the presidency against John F. Kennedy. Although he did not visit the campus during his term as the 37th president, Nixon may well have made the most trips to the Grand Forks community of any person to have occupied the oval office. As president, Nixon returned to the area in October 1970 to campaign on behalf of Congressional candidate Tom Kleppe. Joining Nixon on the platform at the Grand Forks International Airport was [then] UND President George W. Starcher.
Office of University Relations, 2004
Roused for Reagan
The 86 quick minutes he spend on the University of North Dakota campus will be remembered among the noteworthy events in the history of UND. Friday, Oct. 17 (1986), President Ronald Reagan came to UND to campaign for North Dakota Senator Mark Andrews. Speaking in the UND Fieldhouse at noon, President Reagan seemed delighted with the enthusiastic reception he received from the overflow crowd estimated at 9,000. A great many in the Field house were Republican partisans, but others ― perhaps the majority ― were citizens of every political hue who appreciated the opportunity to see firsthand the President of the United States. Hundreds more were turned away when the arena reaches its capacity.
The Andrews re-election campaign rented the Fieldhouse for the president’s appearance. UND President Tom Clifford said, “The appearance of the President of the United States in North Dakota is a rare privilege. The University of North Dakota believes that it is it is obligation to make a platform available for the nation’s leader, regardless of political affiliation.” Many key campus personnel put forward their best efforts to help the White House, Secret Service and Andrews campaign teams prepare the elaborate staging and hoopla that greeted the president. In addition, many UND students ― especially fraternity and sorority members ― literally worked day and night … People began to line up at 3 a.m. on the crisp October morning. When the doors opened several musical groups were in place to provide entertainment. Red, white and blue balloons and bunting decorated the arena. Blue drapes hung over and behind the president’s platform. Once inside, the crowd showered the arena with infectious high spirit, waved American flags and displayed hand-lettered posters welcoming the president.
Andrews capped off the event by giving President Reagan a UND hockey jersey with words “Mr. President” across the back over a large No. 1.
University of North Dakota Alumni Review, Nov. 1986
In the House
It hasn’t only been a one-way relationship between U.S. presidents or would-be presidents and UND. In 2000, following UND’s most recent NCAA hockey championship, a presidential level invitation came UND’s way for its star hockey team to visit Bill Clinton at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Then UND Head Coach Dean Blais, his squad and a slew of University dignitaries, including then UND President Charles Kupchella and other staff members, would take President Clinton up on his offer in November of 2000. It was a first for any UND delegation to be specifically invited to and be honored at the White House by a sitting president. Blaise gave President Clinton a UND hockey jersey, and Kupchella presented Clinton with a Grand Forks specialty ― no, not a Red Pepper grinder ― a different kind of signature gift from the Red River Valley ― Widman’s “chippers” (chocolate-covered potato chips), much to the presidents amusement.
Among the players who joined Blais on that visit were current UND goalies coach Karl Goehring, Jeff Panzer, Lee Goren, Brad DeFauw, Mike Commodore, Peter Armbrust, Jason Ulmer and Tim O’Connell, all members of the 2000 national championship team. That squad defeated Boston College 4-2 on April 8 in 2000, in Providence, R.I., to claim its seventh national championship.
Carry a big stick?
Though not a sitting president at the time, eventual and current commander-in-chief Barack Obama came to Grand Forks on April 4, 2008, on a campaign stop amid a tight party nomination race between then Sen. Obama and former First Lady (Sen.) Hillary Rodham Clinton. In fact, on the same day Obama visited Grand Forks, Sen. Clinton followed him at the same location on the very same podium. Both candidates drew a packed house to the Alerus Center to hear their individual speeches. One of the gifts that Obama received that day from the state’s Democratic party leadership was an official UND hockey stick. In one of the more memorable photos from that day, Obama can be seen proudly raising the stick above his head to show his appreciation.
University & Public Affairs writer