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By Chuck Haga , Published February 05 2009

Former longtime UND president Clifford dies

Thomas J. Clifford, a dominating presence at the University of North Dakota for a half-century and the university’s president for 21 years, died Wednesday evening at his home in Grand Forks. He was 87.

He had suffered what was described as a slight stroke in late August 2007 and spent about 10 days in Altru Hospital in Grand Forks, followed by speech and physical therapy. He was hospitalized last fall after hurting his back in an accident at his Minnesota lake home. He was brought to the hospital again on Christmas Day and released to hospice care Jan. 8.

Clifford’s tenure as president was marked by explosive growth in the university’s enrollment, budget and research programs. He embraced a pioneering expansion into aviation instruction, brokered the medical school’s conversion to a four-year, degree-granting institution, and reached out to Native Americans with instructional programs in medicine and other fields.

Student, professor, dean and vice president at UND before succeeding the late Dr. George Starcher as president in 1971, Clifford was the first North Dakotan to hold the office.

He was “a terrific ordinary guy,” in the words of the late Grand Forks Mayor Hugo Magnuson.

Robert Lewis, an emeritus professor of English, called him “very warm and human” as an administrator.

“I thought he was a great leader,” Lewis said. “He didn’t enforce his views on others (but) wanted to find out what others thought to keep the university moving.”

David Vorland, who was Clifford’s executive assistant at UND, said his greatest quality “was his genuine and enthusiastic interest in and empathy with people of all ages, from every walk of life.”

Clifford retired in 1992 but remained active in Grand Forks, moving into a house on Reeves Drive and an office in his namesake Clifford Hall on campus, where he led UND’s Aerospace Foundation into his 80s.

He was a certified public accountant, investor and entrepreneur throughout his academic career, and after the flood of 1997 Grand Forks tapped him to lead a task force on business redevelopment.

In 2002, Clifford received North Dakota’s highest honor: the Theodore Roosevelt Roughrider Award. In 2000, UND awarded him an honorary doctorate.

For many years, Clifford also moonlighted as official scorekeeper at UND basketball games, and long after he retired, “he would call up here to get Sioux scores late at night,” said Herald Sports Editor Kevin Fee. “He had to be one of the greatest Sioux fans of all time.”


The Grand Forks Herald and The Forum are both owned by Forum Communications Co.