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Andrea Hunter Halgrimson, Published May 22 2011

Halgrimson: Hatton native Agnes Geelan a hero to many

In 1988, Newsweek magazine chose Agnes Geelan as an American hero, citing her peace activism. She was then 92 years old.

Geelan was my hero, too, and that of many women and men throughout her native North Dakota and the country.

She was born near Hatton, N.D., on May 19, 1896, the daughter of Norwegian immigrant homesteaders named Kjorlie. While in school in Hatton, she was a classmate of aviation pioneer Carl Ben Eielson.

A graduate of Mayville State College in 1915, Geelan went on to teach for 18 years. She also attended Concordia College in the 1920s and later attended Dakota Business College in Fargo.

In 1918, she worked for women’s suffrage with the League of Women Voters and during World War II conducted the campaign for war bond sales that she later came to regret.

While teaching in Enderlin, N.D., she met Elric Geelan, who was born in 1897 in Fond Du Lac, Wis. He was a railroad foreman for the Soo Line. They married on May 28, 1926. Agnes always spoke of Elric’s caring and support for her various endeavors. He died in 1966.

Geelan began her political career as an officer in the ladies auxiliary of the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen in 1931. In 1935, she was elected president of North Dakota’s American Legion auxiliary.

She was the first female mayor in the state when she was elected mayor of Enderlin in 1946. In 1950, she became the first woman elected to the North Dakota Senate.

Geelan made unsuccessful runs for Congress in 1948 and 1956, when she was the first North Dakota woman to be endorsed by a major party. She was one of the so-called insurgents, the state politicians who maneuvered the Nonpartisan League into the Democratic Party at the NPL state convention in 1956.

In 1966, Geelan was appointed to the North Dakota Workmen’s Compensation Commission by Gov. William Guy. She left the bureau in 1964 to care for her ailing husband and was named to the position when he died. She retired in 1971 after being appointed a delegate to the state’s Constitutional Convention.

After retiring, she returned to college and North Dakota State University. By the age of 88, she had completed three books: “The Dakota Maverick,” a biography of U.S. Sen. William Langer, and two novels, “Pine Cove Revisited” and “The Ministers’ Daughters.”

Geelan took her first step for peace in 1951 when as a state senator she voted for a resolution asking the U.S. to pull American soldiers out to Korea.

In 1988, she asked the North Dakota congressional delegation to arrange for her to observe American and Soviet arms negotiations in Geneva. The Reagan administration rejected her request, but through the office of Sen. Kent Conrad, she was invited to the U.N.’s session on disarmament in June 1988. She was also invited to attend the U.N. secretary general’s reception.

Throughout the years, Geelan won many awards, but it was after the events at the U.N. that she was named a Newsweek American hero.

Agnes Geelan died March 10, 1993, after a long and exceedingly productive life.

Source: Forum files

Readers can contact Forum columnist Andrea Hunter Halgrimson at ahalgrimson@forumcomm.com