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Erik Burgess, Published January 18 2014

Who is ND's most famous icon? We asked, you answered (sort of)

Fargo - For a state that claims to be “legendary,” you’d think there would be more famous people. Spurred by a recent debate about the historical merits of Lawrence Welk’s boyhood home, a reporter set out last week to ask a lot of people a simple question: Who is the most famous North Dakotan?

No, it’s not a trick question, and yes, after talking to 28 people – including local history professors, arbiters of culture and random people on the street and the Internet – there was a clear front-runner.

But the winner wasn’t as interesting as the process. Young and old, North Dakotans, it seems, love to talk about who the state can even put forward as its favorite son or daughter.

The variety of answers was more telling than their content. In the interviews, more than 25 “North Dakotans” were mentioned as the state’s most famous. Three of the most common names suggested weren’t even born in the state.

So maybe there is no dominantly famous person from North Dakota. Maybe it’s a land of somewhat-loved B-listers and a few A-listers from elsewhere who residents claim despite their birth certificates.

Or perhaps it is Lawrence Welk, or as those under the age of 50 know him: Lawrence Who’s-that-now?

In a tight vote, the state Historical Society decided earlier this month to purchase Welk’s boyhood home near Strasburg, but in interviews, some people explicitly said they would not pick Welk as the state’s most famous figure.

The Internet seems to think the most famous North Dakotan is Daytime Emmy Award-winning actor Josh Duhamel. North Dakota: Where a Daytime Emmy equals fame.

Yet again, some made it clear they were not going to pick Duhamel, while others simply referred to him as “Fergie’s boyfriend.” Sorry about that, Josh. At least you’re famous.

No fame in NoDak?

Almost without fail, the first thing people do when you ask them to name the most famous North Dakotan is laugh. Then, their brows furrow as they try to think of a halfway decent answer.

Pose the question in downtown Fargo’s Pinch and Pour, and an employee will say musician Peggy Lee at the same time as a nearby customer offers up former U.S. Rep. Earl Pomeroy.

A table of three friends at Atomic Coffee jokingly bickered over the question, with Fargo resident Andrew Lidner laughing as he suggested Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker as his final answer.

Those at a table of three at the Hotel Donaldson in downtown Fargo struggle to remember names and, say, are they even from North Dakota anyway?

Why is the premise so funny and difficult for some people? Well, one could argue it’s because there are really no famous people from North Dakota.

Simply pop over the Red River and ask Minnesotans to name their most famous folk, and you’d likely get a dead heat between Prince and Bob Dylan – two verifiable celebrities.

New Jersey has it easy – a toss-up between Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi. Alaska has Sarah Palin. Washington has Kurt Cobain. Even Wyoming has Jackson Pollock.

North Dakota does go out of its way, though, to enshrine its most prominent people with the Rough Rider Award, which brings with it a portrait that hangs in perpetuity in the State Capitol. It was first given in 1961 to – who else? – Lawrence Welk.

The Welk question

North Dakota State history professor Angela Smith had no problem naming the most famous North Dakotan. For her, Welk’s eternality and wide-reaching span crowns him most famous.

“Maybe young people wouldn’t know, but it (Welk’s show) still runs on PBS,” Smith said. “Every Saturday night.”

Others would agree with Smith, but her point begs the question: Isn’t the severe demographic gap in Welk’s popularity reasonable doubt in his case for fame?

“Maybe 70 years ago it would’ve been Lawrence Welk,” said Mark Peihl, an archivist for the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, right across the border from North Dakota. Half a dozen others agreed the state’s boldest name was once Welk.

Fargo resident Zach Johnson, 25, was quick to answer the “most famous” question with Welk, but he didn’t really know why.

“I’ve just heard of him,” he said with a laugh.

Johnson then realized he probably thought of Welk because of the Saturday Night Live skits in which the bandleader is played by comedian Fred Armisen.

Kim Porter, a professor of history at the University of North Dakota, wasn’t convinced. Before giving an official answer, she emphatically declared it would not be Welk.

“I think fame should not be quite so fleeting, and if I were to ask students in a class in Iowa, Illinois to name a famous North Dakotan, they might blank out, but they most assuredly would not say Lawrence Welk,” said Porter, who specializes in North Dakota history.

Fargo resident Brad Delzer, 32, one of those three friends at Atomic Coffee, picked Welk, based on the pending plans to turn the bandleader‘s home into a tourist site.

“The state is working hard to make him the most famous North Dakotan,” he said.

Which raises another question: Would people answer the question differently if Heidi Heitkamp had recently announced plans to run for president? Or if Duhamel had just been nominated for an Academy Award? The latter, at least, wouldn’t change Porter’s mind.

“It takes time. I don’t think you can point to somebody like Josh Duhamel or whatever and say he’s the most famous because he hasn’t endured,” she said. “You find somebody who’s endured.”

Other metrics of fame

There are surely an infinite number of totally unscientific ways to measure fame. Which North Dakotan has the most Twitter followers, you ask?

Why, it’s none other than rapper Wiz Khalifa, who was born in Minot and has a whopping 12.3 million followers. Still, Khalifa lists his hometown on Twitter as Pittsburgh and when he reps his town in 2010 hit single “Black and Yellow,” the colors are those of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers – not the green and yellow of the Bison.

But the North Dakota-spurning rapper isn’t the only native with a glimmer of Internet proof backing their claim to the state’s most fame. If the length of a Wikipedia entry is a true indicator of fame – it isn’t – then Welk would win with about 3,330 words.

But how many major league homeruns did Welk smack in his lifetime? Surely not more than Jamestown’s own Travis Hafner, who holds the title of North Dakotan with most long flies. The 36-year-old lefty has hit 213 bombs so far in his career. (Remember: Roger Maris, who hit 275, was actually born in Hibbing, Minn.)

Down to brass tacks: Which North Dakotan has both hosted Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice Awards and been the recipient of its “best arm fart” award?

Yes, it’s Duhamel! His Wikipedia page, by the way, clocks in at a paltry 1,100 words, fewer than this very article.

Does statehood matter?

Another interesting question was raised in the search for the most famous person from the state. Are they famous in their own right, or are they famous for being North Dakotan?

Several people immediately pointed to Theodore Roosevelt, the nation’s 26th president, as the state’s most well-known ambassador, but then many quizzically slammed on the brakes: Wait, is he even from North Dakota?

Of course, he isn’t.

“But he’s the most famous guy associated with North Dakota, probably,” said Charley Johnson, president and CEO of the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau.

What Roosevelt did was bring attention and glory to the state, some argued.

“At one time, he made the comment that without North Dakota, he never could’ve been president. So, whether that’s political puffery, or what, it’s still a statement,” Porter said.

The state’s national park in Roosevelt’s honor also shows his commitment to preserving the wildlife and natural beauty here, a lesson that’s important for North Dakota today more than ever, said Prairie Rose Seminole, a cultural adviser for Sanford Health.

“We’re trying to protect all that with the stuff happening out west, and he was the one that brought all these policies forward and saved what we hold dear to us, and that’s the land and having a sense of place,” Seminole said.

Some argued that the same lasting legend status can be attributed to Phil Jackson, considered one of the greatest NBA coaches of all time, but someone who was also not born in North Dakota.

He was born in western Montana, but attended high school in Williston and eventually balled for UND.

It raises a question the state Historical Society was no doubt wrestling with as they considered buying Welk’s homestead.

“Where do you draw the line between really significant people who we associate with our state versus people who were less significant or who really didn’t live here much of their lives?” asked NDSU history professor Mark Harvey.

Plus, time is such a huge factor for all but the best known cultural icons – be they bandleaders or ball players.

“I wonder how many young people really know Roger Maris? Or was Roger Maris partly a creation of the New York media?” said Eric Burin, a professor of history at UND.

Finally, why is the conversation mostly limited to two types of people: old white guys and dead white guys?

Seminole, a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota, said she considered names like Duhamel, Roosevelt and author Louis L’Amour, but ultimately picked Native American author Louise Erdrich, who, by the way, was born in Minnesota.

“I definitely go toward our women leaders because we’ve done such a failure of lifting up their stories, regardless of race or ethnicity,” Seminole said.

Erdrich was the most recent recipient of the state’s Rough Rider Award in 2013.

Other women who were consistently mentioned but almost never rose to the top of people’s lists were actress Angie Dickinson and musician Peggy Lee. Sakakawea and Katherine Burgum – an arts advocate in Fargo who is also mother of Fargo entrepreneur Doug Burgum – also had at least one mention each.

Nice but not famous

North Dakota just might not be the best place to breed famous people. One could argue that the state has a culture where self-aggrandizement is discounted, Burin said.

“You have a very fine line one must walk between spotlighting your achievements, attracting people, making it an attractive place for others to come and visit,” Burin said, “but at the same time this pervasive subculture of, ‘Well, that’s not really how we do it. It seems immodest to talk about yourself like that.’ ”

In other words, we’re too busy being “North Dakota nice” to be “North Dakota famous.”

“It’s not about popularity or status to us. We’re common folks, and we’re doing things that make our livelihood,” Seminole said. “At the same time, behind closed doors around the kitchen tables, we’re talking about so-and-so, whether we know them or not.”

By the way, the No. 1 “most famous North Dakotan,” based on everyone we spoke to? Theodore Roosevelt, hands down. Yes, he’s not from here. The question was open-ended.

Others that topped the list of most-mentioned were Roger Maris, Phil Jackson and Lawrence Welk. Of those four, Welk is the only guy actually born in North Dakota. So maybe he wins after all.

The point probably is, that deep down, we’re all “North Dakota famous,” meaning not famous at all. But we’re all so darn nice, maybe it doesn’t matter.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518