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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published October 08 2011

Eriksmoen: North Dakota teachers became prominent national figures

Former North Dakota K-12 teachers have made major impacts on the national stage. I have written about seven nationally prominent people whose early careers were as teachers in this state. If you know of others, please let me know at the email address listed at the end of the article.

Usher Burdick was a rebellious student at the country school on Graham’s Island. After a stern rebuke from his teacher, he realized he needed a good education. He received a teaching certification from Mayville Normal School (now Mayville State) in 1898 and taught at a country school east of Leeds. The next year, Burdick taught at York and, the following year, at Minnewaukan. He graduated from law school in 1904 and went on to serve two terms in the Legislature, one term as lieutenant governor and nine terms as a member of the U.S. House. While in Congress, “Burdick became the strongest voice for the American Indians.” He also opposed Joseph McCarthy and his Communist witch hunts, as well as the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Maxwell Anderson graduated from the University of North Dakota in 1911 with a degree in English literature. That fall, he accepted the position of principal and English teacher at Minnewaukan High School. After a year of teaching, Anderson enrolled at Stanford University, earning a master’s degree in 1914. He then taught English at the college level and worked as a newspaper journalist before embarking on a career as a playwright. His 1924 play, “What Price Glory,” which he co-wrote with Laurence Stallings, won critical acclaim. Anderson won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1933 for his play “Both Your Houses.” He won the New York Critics Circle Award in 1935 for “Winterset” and in 1936 for “High Tor.” Other notable plays written by Anderson include “Mary of Scotland, Essex and Elizabeth,” “Knickerbocker Holiday,” “The Bad Seed” and “Anne of the Thousand Days.” He also wrote the lyrics to “September Song,” popularized in the play “Knickerbocker Holiday.”

Harold Bachman graduated from the North Dakota Agricultural College (now North Dakota State University) in 1916 and accepted the position of music instructor at Harvey the following fall. After Congress declared war on Germany in 1917, he recruited musicians for a North Dakota National Guard band to entertain military troops in Europe. His ensemble was so successful in building up the spirits of the soldiers that it was named the “Million Dollar Band.” At the conclusion of World War I, Bachman’s musicians performed at major concerts and were frequently featured on national radio. He was recalled to active duty during World War II to serve as the head of band music of the Pacific Theater. After that war, Bachman built the Gator Band at the University of Florida.

Cornelia “Coya” (Gjesdal) Knutson earned an education degree from Concordia College in 1934. After a year at the Julliard School of Music, she accepted a position at Penn, where she taught music and English at the high school. Coya moved to western Minnesota, where she continued her teaching career and married Andrew Knutson. In 1950 and again in 1952, Knutson was elected to the Minnesota Legislature and, in 1954, ran for Congress. She upset the incumbent, becoming the first woman to serve in the U.S. House from an upper Plains state. Serving two terms, she authored the first school milk program, the first federal student loan program, and introduced the tax check-off to fund presidential campaigns.

Eugene McCarthy graduated with a degree in English from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., in 1935. After teaching in Minnesota for three years, he “believed his big break came in 1938 when the school board in Mandan hired him” to teach high school. In 1940, McCarthy accepted a teaching and coaching position at his alma mater. During World War II, the War Department sent him to Washington, D.C., to decipher Japanese codes. In 1948, McCarthy was elected to the U.S. House from Minnesota. After serving five terms in the House, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1958. While in the Senate, McCarthy became an outspoken critic of President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam War policies. In 1967, McCarthy challenged Johnson in the primary election, forcing the incumbent to withdraw from the campaign. Disillusioned with politics, McCarthy declined to run for re-election in 1970.

Pierre Salinger attended Dickinson State Teachers College from July 1943 to June 1944 as part of the Navy officers training program. Because of a shortage of teachers, Salinger was also a part-time instructor at Dickinson High School for the 1943-44 year. After World War II, he became a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. When John F. Kennedy became U.S. president in 1961, he hired Salinger as his press secretary. Following Kennedy’s assassination, he was retained by President Lyndon Johnson. In 1964, Salinger was appointed U.S. senator from California to fill a vacancy left by the death of Clair Engle. Later that year, he was defeated by George Murphy. In 1968, Salinger appeared on the popular television series “Batman” and then became a manager for Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign bid. He was hired by ABC News in 1978 and won the prestigious George Polk Award in 1981 for scooping the secret negotiations to free the American hostages held in Iran. His 1989 report on the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 won an Emmy Award.

Ron Erhardt graduated from Jamestown College in 1953 and, after spending two years in the military, became an assistant football coach and social studies teacher at Williston High School. He then spent two years at St. Mary’s of New England and three years at Bishop Ryan in Minot as teacher and football coach, compiling a 45-9 record with two ties. The success of Erhardt’s football teams earned him the position of assistant coach at North Dakota State University in 1963. In 1966, he became head coach at NDSU and, after seven years, compiled a 61-7-1 record. In 1973, Erhardt became backfield coach of the New England Patriots and, four years later, was promoted to offensive coordinator. During the 1978 season, he was hired as head coach and remained at the helm until the conclusion of the 1981 season. From 1982 to 1998, Erhardt was offensive coordinator for the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers.


“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.