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Published September 17 2010

Forum editorial: Unhjem’s laudable legacy

The tragic death earlier this week of Mike Unhjem should not, in any way, detract from an extraordinary life of significant accomplishments. The former president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota died Monday at his Fargo home.

Unhjem’s life is an American success story. The son of adoptive parents, he excelled in nearly every aspect of his adult life. The youngest man ever elected to the North Dakota Legislature (when he was still in school at Jamestown, N.D., College), he served several terms in the ’70s and ’80s. He was recognized as an advocate for people with mental illness and substance abuse.

He attended law school at the University of North Dakota and practiced law for several years. His career took off in 1986 when he joined BCBS as legal counsel and vice president of corporate affairs. The rise of the Blues as one of the strongest health insurance companies in the nation paralleled Unhjem’s tenure there.

Unhjem became the top man at BCBS in 1991. The company’s growth was spectacular. Unhjem and his management team guided the Blues through the changing health care and health insurance landscape with uncommon corporate and political skills. The company expanded from the state’s major health insurer into all manner of associated businesses. It became one of the largest private employers in the region.

The company’s strength and diverse portfolio are direct results

of Unhjem’s visionary leadership. His work in North Dakota was recognized across the nation.

But he wasn’t only about the business of health insurance. Unhjem’s role as a civic leader, philanthropist and mentor was exemplary and steady. He was a dedicated patron of the arts, both with organizations and individual local artists. He mentored young people who were on their way to new professional careers. Civic organizations involved in fundraising always wanted

Unhjem to help. And he did, with everything from the United Way to public broadcasting to mental health advocacy.

Smart, witty and occasionally irreverent, Unhjem is described by those who knew him as an original thinker – a man who could focus his brilliance and energy on solving problems and developing strategies for success. He demanded excellence of himself and expected it in others who wanted to work with him.

No one is perfect. Unhjem struggled with personal demons,

but he should not be defined so narrowly. Unhjem’s life was distinguished by visionary work in the business world and admirable and selfless service to others. He made his community a better place. As family, friends and colleagues bid him farewell today and Saturday, it is that legacy we celebrate.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.