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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published June 08 2013

Eriksmoen: ND man ‘changed the face of public humanities’

In many ways, the North Dakota Humanities program became the template or model for the rest of the country.

The man most responsible for this headed that program for more than 30 years, beginning with its inception in 1973. During that time, Ev Albers helped publish numerous books and articles, promoted speakers throughout the state, produced and marketed historical North Dakota materials, provided assistance and financing for the making of an award-winning movie, and brought about the reincarnation of the Chautauqua.

As the noted scholar Clay Jenkinson wrote, “Ev changed the face of the public humanities in the United States.”

When the NDH program started in February 1973, Albers became the director. To find out what kind of projects would be best for North Dakota, he set up statewide meetings soliciting the basic needs from each of the communities and sought out program ideas that might help address those needs.

At these meetings, he made “an earnest effort to demonstrate the importance of the humanities to a civil discussion of issues.” When this was completed, Albers identified the needs as “lack of economic opportunity for young people, the problem of young people leaving the state and issues surrounding the development of mineral resources in North Dakota.”

The first major project undertaken by Albers was in the mid-1970s. Two filmmakers, John Hanson and Rob Nilsson, contacted him about making a

30-minute documentary concerning the Nonpartisan League in 1917. Hanson was originally from McClusky, N.D., and Nilsson’s grandfather had served as North Dakota’s state photographer. Albers realized the potential of the project and worked with the two men to make it a full-length motion picture called “Northern Lights.” The film was shot near Crosby, N.D., and at Bonanzaville in West Fargo using mostly local talent. It premiered in Crosby in July 1978 and was shown in other cities in the state before being entered in the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Golden Camera Award for best feature film of 1979.

An interesting show on public television in the late 1970s was “Meeting of the Minds,” hosted by Steve Allen. On the show, actors playing the roles of historical figures would sit around a table and discuss current issues. Albers was inspired by this show and believed that it could be a format for discussing important issues facing the state. To him, the logical way to get these discussions heard by many state residents was to have a traveling tent show similar to the Chautauqua shows that were popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Albers invited scholars to study the writings and philosophy of different historical figures they would like to portray on the Chautauqua circuit, stressing that they would present themselves in a scholarly rather than a theatrical persona.

In 1981, Albers and Jenkinson met with National Endowment for the Humanities officials to present the idea of creating the Great Plains Chautauqua. This idea was not greeted by the NEH with much enthusiasm because they believed it was light on history. As it turns out, Albers and his scholars allayed their fears.

Jenkinson wrote, “It’s the most widely practiced public humanities format in America. Now the NEH praises and encourages Chautauqua without hesitation.”

I discovered Albers to be a valuable resource. He could immediately understand concepts as they were presented to him and find ways to improve them.

The North Dakota Commission on the bicentennial of the United States Constitution met in 1987 to look for a way that the Bill of Rights would be read by the residents of North Dakota. I suggested that we should explore the possibility of having them put each of the bills on grocery bags. We then took the idea to Albers, who immediately envisioned an attractive way that they could be displayed. He worked with Stewart-Wheeler to come up with eye-catching illustrations for each bill, and they were printed on every grocery bag used by SuperValu.

In 1993, I was contacted by a number of North Dakota studies teachers concerned about the lack of good teaching materials. I needed to come up with an inexpensive but attractive resource, and envisioned the “Weekly Reader” that I enjoyed as a schoolboy.

I met with Albers and Linda Ehreth of the State Historical Society, and as usual, Albers took the idea several steps further. He immediately had a name for it: The North Star Dakotan. My simple eight-page, 10-inch by 12-inch idea was transformed into an attractive 32-page, 11-inch by 14-inch paper. He contracted historian, D. Jerome Tweton to do most of the writing for each issue, and Albers uncovered most of the photos and did all of the layout work.

Albers was a workaholic because there was so much he wanted to accomplish. In September 2002, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and told he had three months to live. With all that he had planned, he could not die that soon. He continued to come to work every day, except for days of chemo treatments, and considered every day “a beautiful day in North Dakota.” He lived until April 24, 2004, and left a legacy of many accomplishments.

“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.