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Ryan Johnson, Published May 10 2013

One of NDSU’s first doctoral grads to be recognized at today’s commencement

FARGO – Shivering through a few frigid winters sounded better than sweating through the muggy summers of Mississippi.

At least that’s how Frank “Ed” LeGrand made his big decision in 1959, when the Oklahoma native packed up his belongings and drove his wife and four kids to Fargo to begin studies as an agronomy doctoral student at North Dakota State University.

He had two options – NDSU or Mississippi State University, the country’s only two schools at the time to offer a Ph.D. in his specialty.

Despite the harsh winters, he said he has warm memories of his three years on campus.

LeGrand, now 86, will once again hear his name called during NDSU’s spring commencement ceremony today when he’s recognized as the only living member of the group of five students who earned the university’s first doctoral degrees in 1963.

At the time, NDSU offered just five doctoral degree programs and had a fall semester enrollment of about 4,000. Fifty years later, more than 14,000 students are enrolled and the university now offers 50 doctoral programs.

While LeGrand was joined by only four other students in earning the top degree in 1963, he’ll be in good company today: NDSU’s graduating class of 2013 includes 123 doctoral degree recipients.

“I imagine it will be different,” he said about today’s graduation. “It will be a lot larger for sure.”

Oklahoma rancher, NDSU scholar

For LeGrand, the journey from undergraduate studies at Oklahoma State University to doctoral research at NDSU boiled down to the lure of a good scholarship.

He was born in 1926 in west-central Oklahoma, growing up on a farm and ranch that made him an eyewitness to the devastation of the Dust Bowl. After graduating from high school, he married his wife of the past 64 years, Alberta, and continued to farm and ranch.

But LeGrand said he knew he had to make a change a dozen years after finishing high school when another drought hit his home state in the 1950s.

“So, I finally decided to go to college,” he said.

LeGrand worked part time in OSU’s agronomy department during his senior year. His adviser suggested he look into his options through the new National Defense Education Act signed into law in 1958 that boosted funding to U.S. schools to improve the nation’s science and mathematical knowledge – an important goal during the space race with the Soviet Union.

The legislation also allowed him to get a big scholarship to attend a university that was just launching its doctoral programs, providing him with a $3,000 award and an additional $500 for each of his five dependents for a total of $5,500. He considered his two school options, settled on NDSU and was accepted for a fellowship here.

LeGrand said he and his family made a new life in one of the apartments at 44 Bison Court. He has pleasant memories of that time – some colder than others.

“On March 1 of ’60, our last child was born up there, and it was 33 degrees below zero the morning she was born,” he said, laughing. “That’s one thing I’ll never forget – it was cold.”

Still, LeGrand said the chilly weather had its own advantages. He often took the kids to ice-skate at a nearby elementary school rink, and said he enjoyed ice fishing in Minnesota with his oldest son.

The winter also came in handy for more practical reasons. His parents gave the family the processed meat from half a cow each Christmas when they’d return to Oklahoma, and the LeGrands would simply fill their trunk with the meat and leave it for the winter, taking out a package or two of beef at a time to make a meal.

“That was our deep freeze, which was very unusual for us,” he said.

LeGrand finished his dissertation, and the family packed up and left Fargo on March 30, 1963, to return to Oklahoma, where he was given a job as a professor.

He returned to Fargo with his parents later that spring to officially receive his Ph.D., and visited Fargo one more time about 10 years later for a meeting.

LeGrand worked at OSU for 30 years, 15 as a professor and state extension crop specialist and 15 in charge of the Oklahoma Foundation Seed Stocks Inc. and the Oklahoma Crop Movement Association, before retiring in 1994.

Nearly 20 years after retiring, he has no plans to quit farming and ranching on the 1,000 acres he and Alberta call home near Stillwater, Okla. But he said he still has fond memories of the NDSU campus that welcomed him all those years ago.

“It was a great stay we had in North Dakota during my college days,” he said. “I had to study hard and do this and that, but I would do it all over again.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587