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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published August 18 2012

Eriksmoen: Lips changed face of education, economy in ND

During the last half of the 20th century, the politician credited with making the greatest contributions toward the improvement of higher education in North Dakota and economic development in Bismarck was a former football and World War II hero.

Evan Lips had been the quarterback and captain of highly successful football teams at Bismarck High and the University of North Dakota. As a Marine officer during World War II, he fought at Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal and Guam, receiving the Bronze Star and Legion of Merit.

After the war, Lips coached the St. Mary’s football team to a state title and guided the Murphy Insurance Co. to financial success.

Lips soon found himself pressed to run for public office. When Bismarck Mayor Tom Kleppe decided not to run for re-election in 1954, Lips ran unopposed.

The highest priority for Lips as mayor was the improvement of education in Bismarck.

When he heard that the Benedictine Sisters were planning to build a college 10 miles east of Dickinson, N.D., he obtained 40 acres of land south of Bismarck and convinced the Sisters to locate their college there instead.

Mary College, now University of Mary, was founded in 1955 and opened its doors in 1959.

In 1955, Lips also had the facilities of Bismarck Junior College, now Bismarck State College, moved from Bismarck High School to the southeast corner of the Capitol grounds.

Lips was re-elected as mayor in 1958 and 1962. During his administration, Hughes Junior High was built in 1958 and Hillside Park Junior High, now Simle, was constructed in 1961.

He also oversaw economic development in the city. Shopping malls began to show up in Bismarck; the Dakota Zoo was opened in 1961; Bismarck’s first “modernized hotel,” the Holiday Inn, was built in 1962; the Veteran’s Public Library was constructed in 1963; the William Guy Federal Building was completed in 1964; and the Grant Marsh Bridge across the Missouri River was finished in 1965.

In 1960, Guy Larson, the state senator for District 27, announced he would not run for re-election. Leaders of the Burleigh County Republican Party convinced Lips to seek the position.

However, one major problem existed. The North Dakota Constitution appeared to “ban mayors from serving in the Legislature.” An appeal was made to Attorney General Leslie Burgum. In late February 1960, Burgum issued an opinion allowing Lips to run for the Senate and serve as mayor at the same time.

Lips was easily elected and took his seat in the Senate in January 1961. His colleagues elected him Senate majority leader in 1967 and the Senate’s president pro-tem in 1971.

When the state’s popular governor, William Guy, decided not to seek another term in 1972, Lips decided to toss his hat into the ring for that office. Three other Republicans sought the office of governor: Richard Larson, the lieutenant governor; Chester Reiten, the mayor of Minot; and Ed Doherty, who was also a state senator. At the Republican State Convention, Larson was selected to run against U.S. Congressman Art Link, the Democratic candidate, who was elected in November.

In 1973, Lips was chosen to serve as chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriation Committee. He chaired every session up until 1987, when the Democrats gained control of the Senate.

The major political goal of Lips during his time in the Senate was to improve education within the state. Since most of the improvements cost money, it meant that taxes sometimes needed to be raised to fund these projects. This did not always sit well with the rest of his Republican colleagues.

In 1989, a breaking point was reached when he joined Democrat Gov. George Sinner to push for “a controversial package of income, fuel and sales tax increases.” When Republicans regained control of the Senate in 1995, they refused to appoint Lips as appropriations chair. Lips did not seek re-election in 1998.

Besides his work in the Legislature, Lips served on many different committees and took an active role in a number of different fraternal and charitable organizations. His ability to raise money for different causes became legendary. When Lips called on a person for a contribution, it was only on rare occasions when he walked away empty-handed.

Evan Edwin Lips died Jan. 9, 2005. On his passing, Charles Kupchella, president of the University of North Dakota, commented about the foresight and courage Lips demonstrated in making North Dakota a leader in educating its students. Kupchella said that Lips “was often out ahead of his colleagues in working for state funding that made higher education affordable to all of the citizens.”

“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.