« Continue Browsing

e-mail article Print     e-mail article E-mail

Dave Olson, Published January 17 2014

First days on the job: Local notables share stories from their early working days

FARGO – That first job.

That first paycheck.

How important are they, and what lasting dividends – if any – do we gain from them?

The Forum put those questions to a number of area notables, all of whom said their early job experiences helped define who they are today, from leaders of government and businesses to a writer whose reflections on her personal journey illuminate the universal joys and difficulties of life.

Here are their stories in their own words, with some editing here and there for clarity.

Dennis Walaker, mayor of Fargo

My first job was with the North Dakota highway department.

We worked on Interstate 94 out at Casselton. That was probably in 1961-1962, something like that.

We worked 60-some hours a week, doing a variety of engineering things.

It was interesting for me because I remember we got paid $1.40 an hour, but because I knew how to run a slide rule, I got $1.50 an hour.

When you talk about lessons learned, my parents were a big part of my upbringing.

My father was a great influence. He never, ever, criticized anybody who had more than he did.

Learning from the people you work with, I think that’s extremely important.

That’s what it’s all about, finding your role and accepting your role.

At the end of the day, you have to have some sense of accomplishment in what you’ve done.

You have to have that.

Del Rae Williams, mayor of Moorhead

I did baby-sitting and a Grit paper route, but I think the first time I actually was on a payroll was at the age of 14, when I worked for my parents at their abstract company in Minot, N.D.

I filed, made copies and cleaned the office.

My parents lived their work. It came home with them, and my dad often reviewed abstracts until 2 a.m.

Working for my parents, I learned that it was important to choose a job that I enjoyed and to find challenging things in every part of it, even if it was just dusting file cabinets.

It isn’t as easy to work for your own parents as one might think; you were expected to be a good example.

I didn’t go into the family business, though I know my parents would have been pleased if I had.

I felt a need to be more independent.

Rich Mattern, mayor of West Fargo

I consider growing up on a farm my first job.

From that experience, I learned about working long hours and the value of doing the best you can in whatever you do.

I remember those very cold days when I had to do the chores. The cattle and other animals had to be fed no matter what.

In the summer, the crops had to come off the field because a storm could ruin everything.

Even though I may have wanted to see a movie or do something else on a Friday night, the harvest and other work came first.

My first full-time job after college was at KXMB-TV in Bismarck.

What I learned working on the farm spilled over to the TV job.

People don’t realize that being a TV reporter is not as glamorous as they think; working holidays, weekends, and being on call were all part of the job.

What I learned from being a reporter has helped me as mayor. As a TV reporter, you have to learn how to identify with people who live under a bridge as well as the governor or a U.S. senator.

The same holds true in my position as mayor.

Doug Burgum, entrepreneur

Even before my first job with a paycheck, which was working at the grain elevator in Arthur, N.D., I launched my first startup – at the age of 9.

I had noticed that many of the communities near my hometown of Arthur had their own newspapers, so I decided Arthur should have its very own journalistic product, too.

I named it the Arthur Home News.

Our slogan, which was mimeographed on the hand-lettered masthead, (complete with a misspelled word) read: “The News As it Happens – And Somtimes Sooner.”

My business plan was simple: ads cost 5 cents each and I sold ads to the two competing grocery stores in town, the Arthur Drug Store, a couple of local insurance agencies and a Minneapolis-based Siberian Husky kennel (a supportive cousin).

I went door to door selling subscriptions to neighbors for 10 cents per issue.

I had more takers than not; apparently the community was hungry for local news beyond what was available from the Hunter Times and Casselton Reporter.

A whole team was assembled to help with my ambitious plan.

My father, Joey Burgum, who learned to type in the Navy during World War II, was official typesetter.

My mother, Katherine Kilbourne Burgum, served as copy editor and secretary on our fledgling news staff.

My sister, Barbara Burgum, was an assistant editor, while my brother, Brad, was our technician.

Uncle Alton Burgum was the mimeograph advisor. My role was that of editor and publisher.

Here was the first lesson of startups (which I got right then and later) – surround yourself with people better and smarter than yourself.

Although my paper had what I believed to be a solid business plan and corporate structure, it was short-lived.

In retrospect, it was wonderful the way residents of Arthur supported my young entrepreneurial dreams. Who knows where I would be today without that early encouragement and support of parents and neighbors?

The next time a child you know comes up with an idea to start a business, be sure to listen and support them.

Nancy Nerland, owner of two Fargo-Moorhead Moxie Java coffee shops

Growing up on a farm, we all had responsibilities.

We helped with so many things, from mowing grass to working in the fields disking, raking hay and hauling grain.

We did a lot of baking and making lunches and delivering them to the fields.

There were always people at our house drinking coffee and eating, because the Swanson girls were always baking something.

My first paying job was at High Grade Oil in Groton, S.D.

My father-in-law, Jarvis, gave me a job working in the office filing and posting tickets.

I was always up early, as I would make the 45-mile drive into town with Jarvis and my brother-in-law.

Jarvis was awesome to work for; he was always so patient and encouraging.

Whether it was helping on the farm as a child, or later working for my father-in-law, I never regretted the effort expected of me.

We were a family and that’s what you do.

Harold Newman, founder of Newman Signs Inc.

My first job was working for my grandpa, Thor Gidskemo.

My grandparents owned a 13-acre vegetable farm on the Goose River between Mayville and Portland, N.D. They were immigrants from Norway.

I started working with my grandpa in the third grade.

We went up and down alleys in Mayville in a horse-drawn wagon selling fresh vegetables.

Grandpa always insisted we bring his dog, Trixie, because Trixie was the marketing piece and customers loved that dog.

Grandpa introduced me to the importance of hard work, profit and a good product.

Our workday started at 5 a.m. and went into the evening.

Grandpa always paid me, but I did the work because I liked spending time with him.

Tammy Swift, writer

I guess my very first real job was doing custodial work in my high school one summer.

It was as physical and unglamorous as it sounds.

We waxed gym floors, cleaned storage sheds, washed windows and scrubbed graffiti off desks with some cleaner that smelled vaguely of lemon.

Oh, and we painted.


You haven’t lived until you’ve painted cinder-block walls.

I lived 18 miles out of town, so I spent most of that summer at my grandpa’s house.

Every morning, I got up and drove my dilapidated 1965 Ford – nicknamed “Ruth” – up to the high school. If I remember correctly, I think we actually had to punch a time clock.

But there were compensations.

When we got really crazy, we played the radio (KFYR – which was HUGE in western North Dakota back then) over the public address system.

I spent one afternoon scraping gum off desks while The Go-Gos’ “Vacation” played over the speakers.

The irony was inescapable.

The people I worked with, however, were awesome.

The main janitor was a guy named Paul, who always wore a white undershirt.

He was such a nice, laid-back guy. During our breaks, he smoked unfiltered Camels.

His second-in-command, Rosie, was a lively, wiry, little woman who ran a café in our town.

She also smoked like a chimney. But she was so nice to me and told the greatest stories ever.

I adored her.

She gave me a recipe for frosted brown-sugar cookies; our family still makes them every Christmas.

I made a grand total that summer of $500 and I remember feeling like the richest 16-year-old in the world.

Amazingly, I put it all in savings.

Even more amazing, I didn’t touch it for a couple of years. In fact, those savings helped me pay for my school books during my first year of college.

That was probably the last time I was so fiscally responsible. But I will always remember that summer with fondness, especially whenever I catch a whiff of Lemon Pledge.

Linda Boyd, executive director of the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra

While I held a variety of jobs in my younger years – singer in a traveling band, manager of a Radio Shack store, high school choir director – my most frequent job by far was as a server.

My first job, at age 15, was as a waitress at the Country Kitchen in Jamestown, N.D. Throughout my college and graduate school years, I ended up waitressing and bartending in countless bars, truck stop cafes, restaurants and resorts.

The flexible hours and good tips were great, but above all I really enjoyed the work. My nimble 20-year-old brain could remember food and drink orders for a table of eight without writing them down, and my strong left arm could balance and carry six full dinner plates, diner-style.

While those days and skills are long gone, the lessons I learned as a server helped mold me as a person.

From sharing long shifts and genuine friendships, I learned a lot from my fellow servers about dignity, luck (good and bad), choices, consequences, and generosity of spirit.

I learned many lessons from customers, too – patience, forbearance, the value of a sense of humor and, too often, how not to treat fellow human beings.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555