A tribute to Wayne Stenehjem, the 'trivia king' of North Dakota politicians
"Did You Know That" columnist Curt Eriksmoen reflects on
FARGO — On Jan. 28, North Dakota lost a very valuable public servant who spent nearly half a century working to improve the lives of the citizens of this state.
Many North Dakotans are aware of Wayne Stenehjem’s many accomplishments as a state legislator and North Dakota Attorney General, but only a select few know about his incredible knowledge and his ability to evaluate a good program and then help to see that idea disseminated to a much wider audience.
In 1974, he became directly involved in selecting the franchise location for America’s first bar/nightclub trivia game show. Today, thousands of Americans crowd into bars and nightclubs each week to play trivia games.
Wayne was not the first member of the Stenehjem family to pioneer a popular new idea in America. In 1966, his father, Martin Stenehjem Jr., issued the first federally funded student loan in the U.S. Since that time, this program has assisted millions of students in obtaining a college education.
Wayne Kevin Stenehjem was born Feb. 5, 1953, in Mohall, N.D., to Martin “Buck” Stenehjem, Jr. and Marguerite “Peg” (McMaster) Stenehjem. Buck owned a farm near Mohall in Renville County and moved to Williston in 1958 where he worked in the insurance business.
In 1966, George M. Thompson, president of the Bank of North Dakota, offered Buck the position of bank vice president, and Buck, Peg and their seven children relocated to Bismarck.
Buck was aware that in 1965, the federal government was planning a new program to help students pay for their college education, and he quickly positioned the Bank of North Dakota to be able to take part in it. On Aug. 10, 1967, under the authorization of Buck Stenehjem, the Bank of North Dakota “approved the very first Federally Insured Student Loan in the nation.”
Wayne attended Bismarck High School where he excelled academically, and one of his biggest achievements was becoming an Eagle Scout in 1968. He graduated in 1971, and then attended Bismarck State College for a year before transferring to the University of North Dakota where he majored in history.
Meanwhile, in October 1973, I put together an idea for a game show that was a hybrid of two television shows, "GE College Bowl" and "Jeopardy." I called the game “Think and Drink.”
The shows ran on Monday and Thursday evenings in Grand Forks at the Peanut Bar in the Westward Ho, and soon it became very competitive with teams made up of various UND organizations, UND faculty members, Air Force Base officers and many different professional groups, especially attorneys.
Early on, a new team of UND students showed up, led by a personable young man who appeared to be the captain of the team, and they did very well. At the conclusion of the show, that young team leader came up and introduced himself. He said, “Hi, my name is Wayne Stenehjem. I really enjoyed competing in your contest and I am in the process of recruiting members to be on my team.”
The competition was extremely tough. One of the participants was Bill Thoms, a UND law professor who had been the captain of the Colgate University team that set the record in 1961 for most consecutive victories on "GE College Bowl," which was televised on CBS. Other contestants of “Think and Drink” later went on to do well on "Jeopardy" and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."
The team that Wayne later put together was very formidable, and during the times they did not win, they were always in the competition. Rod St. Aubyn, who later served with Wayne in the North Dakota Senate, occasionally played on Wayne’s team. He wrote, “I was amazed at the knowledge possessed by Wayne... Wayne’s trivia knowledge was incredible.”
Wayne and I soon became good friends, and one of the most frequent things that we loved to talk about was politics. Wayne was 100% Republican, and although I was an independent on most issues, I more often than not sided with the Democrats on many issues.
Wayne’s father was the Republican candidate for the Legislature from Renville County in 1956, and his mother, Peg, was selected by the Republican Party to work as an enrolling and engrossing clerk during the legislative sessions in the 1960s and '70s. Two of Wayne’s brothers, Bob and Allan, also served in the Legislature as Republicans. Wayne’s aunt, Geraldine (Stenehjem) Wheeler, was North Dakota’s Republican national committeewoman for many years.
Even though Wayne and I may have had initial disagreements on some issues, we usually were able to establish a middle ground where we could find consensus. Wayne would always listen carefully to my points of view and carefully evaluate what I had to say. I considered it an honor when he would ask for my opinion on certain political issues. Wayne received his B.A. degree from UND in 1974 and then entered law school.
Because of the popularity of “Think and Drink” in Grand Forks, it received a lot of coverage in newspapers, magazines and on radio and television, and I began receiving inquiries from other bars around the state about the possibility of putting it in their bars. On April 1, 1974, I received a copyright for the game and drew up a list of the cities that showed interest in receiving a franchise.
When Wayne learned of this, he persuasively recommended Bismarck. He said that he would get the word out to many of his friends and insisted that I stay at his parents' home while I was in Bismarck. To make certain that I received a good turnout for the show, Wayne drove to Bismarck to see to it that all the people he had previously contacted showed up.
Largely as a result of Wayne’s tenacity, Bismarck became the first place in America, outside of Grand Forks, to have a regularly scheduled trivia show. Having witnessed Wayne’s tenacity and determination for something he believed in, it is of no surprise to me why he had so much success as a legislator and attorney general.
While still attending law school, Wayne was elected to the North Dakota House of Representatives in 1976 and again in 1978, and he then served in the state Senate from 1980 to 2000.
I left North Dakota in 1980 to teach at Briar Cliff University and to manage a law office in Sioux City, Iowa. I relocated to Bismarck in 1988 when Secretary of State Ben Meier asked me to edit the 1989 Centennial North Dakota Blue Book. I also took over the position of emcee of Think and Drink in Bismarck.
When the Legislature was in session, I was reunited with my old friend, Wayne, who participated in all of the shows. When the games were over for the evening, I observed something very interesting. Wayne often convened a session with both the Democrat and Republican legislators to go over contentious issues that they had argued about in session, striving to achieve consensus, and often this was successful.
In 1997, I moved to Fargo and, except for emails and Facebook, lost close contact with my good friend. In 2000, Wayne was elected attorney general, and in 2003, my new wife, Jan, and I made a business trip to Bismarck. While we were there, I told Jan that I wanted to introduce her to Wayne, so we stopped by the attorney general’s office without an appointment.
When Wayne came out to the reception desk, he told his secretary, “Hold all my calls,” and for the next hour, he spent time getting to know Jan. Jan really liked Wayne and thought he had a great sense of humor. She was impressed that someone as busy as he must be would drop everything and visit with us for that length of time when he didn’t even know we were going to be stopping by.
Wayne died unexpectedly on Jan. 28, and after the shock of that news wore off, I wondered if they play trivia in heaven?
I reasoned that if they do, a bidding war may erupt regarding what team could claim the rights to have Wayne play for their team. They might need the opinion of a good attorney general to make that decision.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.