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Heidi Shaffer, Published September 15 2010

Friends recall Unhjem's community work

Michael Unhjem was widely known in his former role as president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota, but following his death Monday, friends and colleagues were also remembering his vast work in the community.

Unhjem, who was found dead by police on Monday afternoon at his Fargo home, served in major leadership positions at BCBS for 23 years before his dismissal in 2009 during a public uproar over lavish spending practices.

But it was his role in building BCBS as well as his contributions to other community organizations that he would have wanted to be remembered for, said Roger Reierson, Unhjem’s friend and president and CEO of Fargo’s Flint Communications.

“He would have wanted to be remembered as a man who gave a lot to North Dakota, who helped build a very successful organization … a man who really gave back,” Reierson said.

Many of Unhjem’s friends and family have been quiet about his death, but it’s being viewed as a suicide.

Police expect Unhjem’s preliminary autopsy results today but don’t suspect foul play.

Officers responded Monday to a call from Sanford Health asking police to check on a male who had missed a group meeting, according to the police dispatch report.

Reierson said at a lunch together a few weeks ago, Unhjem appeared upbeat and was excited about his new consulting business.

“I’m shocked over the way things turned out and puzzled over how it ended,” Reierson said.

Unhjem had a passion for making Blue Cross Blue Shield and Noridian a success, and leaving the organization behind was difficult, Reierson said.

“But he didn’t seem real bitter about it,” Reierson said.

BCBS released a statement Tuesday regarding Unhjem’s death.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Mike’s family, and the many friends he had all across our state,” said the statement from Denise Kolpack, vice president of corporate communications.

“It was during his 23 years of service to our members and BCBSND that our company grew into one of the most successful insurance companies in the country.”

Beyond his career at the helm of BCBS, Unhjem was active in community arts and advocacy roles, and in 1974 became the youngest person ever elected to the North Dakota Legislature.

Unhjem volunteered in several capacities for the United Way of Cass-Clay starting in 1994 and most recently served on a search committee for the organization’s new executive director. He was named chairman of the UWCC board in 2008.

Current board Chairman Jeff Slaby said Unhjem’s unconventional approach to planning and ideas is something that will be missed.

“We’re losing an original thinker, someone who challenges us to look in different directions and consider all options,” Slaby said.

Unhjem was most actively involved in Mental Health America, serving as chairman of the national chapter in 1988.

As a state legislator through the ’70s and ’80s, Unhjem sought specific legislation for those dealing with mental illness, said Susan Helgeland, executive director of MHA of North Dakota.

“I would call him an advocate for people with mental illness and substance abuse,” she said.

The group is designing an advocacy award to be given in his name at its Oct. 28 statewide meeting in Bismarck, Helgeland said.

“He gave us all a lot of himself and his dedication and passion for our cause,” she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Heidi Shaffer at (701) 241-5511