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Anna G. Larson, Published August 26 2012

Fargo roots, international reach

LOS ANGELES - Carol Hamilton’s current zip code is 90210, but her heart is in 58102.

“I feel very fortunate to have grown up in Fargo,” she said. “It taught me that even in Los Angeles, I could create a sense of community.”

Hamilton, a lawyer and activist in Los Angeles who was recently appointed to the United States National Commission for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization (UNESCO), said she found her motivation to promote peace and justice as a young girl growing up in North Dakota.

“She was always a precocious child,” said Phyllis Thrall, who was married to Hamilton’s brother and has known her since she was 8 years old.

Thrall recalled that Hamilton was always involved in a cause.

Since her formative years in Fargo and through her ongoing advocacy and political work, Hamilton has grown close to the Dalai Lama and worked with Hillary and Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama. She’s also met actor Richard Gere through her philanthropic ventures, and was even mentored for a time by famous French mime Marcel Marceau.

One of the first causes Hamilton remembers was back in Fargo, assisting her mother Alyce Huston (who she calls her greatest teacher) at the Good Will Club her mother created to help families affected by war. She also traveled during the summer with her mother when she supervised women who sold magazines for Curtis Publishing Co.

“As a result, I acquired a strong social consciousness,” she said. “I experienced her compassion as she helped the women who worked for her. Long before the women’s movement was imagined by any of us, I observed her kind but masterful response to the male chauvinism so common in that era.”

Those lessons, Hamilton said, served her well as a young lawyer in the 1970s, when a woman in the courtroom was “still a bit of a novelty.”

Hamilton’s interest in politics was sparked in elementary school when she campaigned for Sen. Quentin N. Burdick of North Dakota. She went on to campaign in eight presidential campaigns – first for Gene McCarthy in 1968 and now for President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election. Hamilton is currently a national co-chair of Lawyers for Obama and a member of the president’s National Finance Committee.

After graduating from Fargo Central High School in 1965, Hamilton attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She spent the summer of her freshman year in France studying French and literature at Paris Sorbonne University.

While at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Hamilton met French actor and mime Marcel Marceau when he performed at the school.

The two discovered they were both fencers and bonded over a love of the sport. Marceau was also a mentor to Hamilton.

“He lived a life of excellence, and his art was his life,” she said.

Hamilton said she learned to strive for excellence when she was a student during junior high and high school at the Selberg Fencing Academy in Fargo.

Her instructor and life-long mentor, Charles Selberg, was a world-class fencer who went on to teach at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Selberg passed away this year.

“He pushed you to be the absolute best,” Hamilton said. “He wouldn’t let me expect anything else from myself.”

She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in education, although she studied French and history, too.

Following law school in San Francisco, Hamilton became a deputy city attorney for the city of Los Angeles. She regularly saw women who were victims of domestic abuse.

“They had no place to go for legal advice,” she said.

To fill the void, Hamilton co-founded the Legal Clinic for Battered Women, one of the first legal counseling clinics in the country for victims of domestic abuse.

“At the time, we filled a tremendous need,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton eventually started her own law firm, working first as a litigation attorney and then as an entertainment attorney.

Of all of her achievements, Hamilton is especially proud of her work with the Tibetan human rights movement.

“One of my greatest passions has been working for human rights in Tibet,” she said.

Hamilton was the founding director of the Tibetan United States Resettlement Project and founding director and vice president of the Tibet Justice Center. She met her husband David Khon, who escaped Tibet when he was 4 years old, through her work with the movement.

“The biggest blessing of all is that I’m married to a wonderful man who is my soul mate and my best friend,” she said.

Through her husband’s family, which is head of the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism, she has spent ample time with the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama’s eldest brother was married to her husband’s aunt.

“I’m grateful for all of the interaction with him,” Hamilton said. “He’s been an incredible guide for me personally and professionally.”

She said that despite the hardships he and his fellow Tibetans have had to endure, the Dalai Lama can speak seriously but also make people “weep with laughter.”

The importance placed on family and friendships in the Midwest has sustained Hamilton throughout her life.

“There’s such a strong sense of community,” she said. “People often talk about Midwestern values. Is it a myth or a reality – I’m not sure – but I really do believe that those of us who had the good fortune to grow up in Fargo in the 1950s were truly blessed.”

Hamilton said that because she grew up in Fargo, she entered the world outside of North Dakota believing that, despite differences, people are trustworthy and the world is a friendly place. She said she’s learned that it isn’t always the case, but it still sticks with her.

“That belief seems to form the core of my being,” she said.

Thrall said that family, too, has always been part of Hamilton’s core.

“No matter what she does, she always lands in Minnesota or North Dakota to see her family,” Thrall said. “She’s ‘Auntie Hamilton,’ and she’s always enthused and filled with passion.”

Interesting facts about Carol Hamilton

• She loves tacos from the Taco Shop in Fargo.

• Carol and her husband enjoy playing beach volleyball.

• Carol has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and trekked in the Himalayas.

• When Carol and her husband contemplate where to vacation, they often end up in Minnesota and North Dakota visiting relatives.

• Carol was in the last class to graduate from Fargo Central High School before it burned down in 1966.

• She still has her notes from Mr. Barney’s economics class at Fargo Central High School.

• When Carol tells people in Los Angeles that she is from Fargo, the usual response involves a reference to the movie “Fargo,” and “You’re the first person I’ve ever met from Fargo.”

• She speaks French, and used to be fluent in the language but said a vacation to France is necessary to freshen her skills.

• Carol also speaks some Tibetan at the dinner table but calls it “sketchy at best.”

• She meditates morning and night.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525