Former North Dakota senator, wife die within days of each other

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Former North Dakota Senator Russell Thane and wife Betty Thane died only four days apart from one another. Special to The Forum.

WAHPETON, N.D. — Russell and Betty Thane in many ways lived an ideal life in North Dakota: growing crops and raising cattle on a farm, having a loving family and being influential to others.

Both Russell Thane and Betty Thane died of old age early this month, with Betty passing on Nov. 6 and Russell just four days behind her on Nov. 10.

They met in Texas while Russell Thane was stationed there by the Air Force. When he was honorably discharged, the family moved to Wahpeton in southeast North Dakota where they spent the rest of their lives.

"My dad loved farming," said Ron Thane, Betty and Russell's son. "Just growing up on the farm, being out on the farm and stuff like that, he loved it."

Ron Thane said his mother was a switchboard operator for Northwestern Bell Telephone Company before she transitioned to being a housewife at the farm, where she also enjoyed gardening.


In 1971, Russell Thane was elected to represent North Dakota's 25th District in the state Senate. During his time as a senator, he was a key player in accruing funding for people with intellectual disabilities.

He would make sure policies enacted by the legislature benefited people with intellectual disabilities, especially in the areas of housing and care, said Tom Newberger, CEO of Red River Human Services Foundation — an organization that provides housing and arranges employment for people with disabilities.

Newberger said Russell Thane wanted to give people with disabilities a better life and was instrumental in making sure various entities, including the state, were doing what was best for people with disabilities.

"Really because of his efforts, in the state of North Dakota people with intellectual disabilities are living a much better life," Newberger said.

Sadly, Russell and Betty Thane's daughter died in 1997. When she died, Russell and Betty Thane raised her two sons like their own children.

Russell Thane ultimately served in the state legislature for 35 years until 2006.

"When I was governor, Sen. Thane was a key partner in helping to pass important education legislation, one of many accomplishments during his long tenure," Sen. John Hoeven said.

Newberger said he became close with Russell Thane, as they would often drive from Fargo or Wahpeton to Bismarck during a legislative session, and he would often have dinner with him.


Russell Thane would take time away from his personal life to focus on what was important to him: people.

"He was concerned about the citizens of North Dakota and what was best for them," Newberger said. "I really appreciated his honesty and integrity and willingness to do what was right and setting aside his personal time to listen to people.

"I truly do miss him," he said.

Michelle (she/her, English speaker) is a Bismarck-based journalist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and Report for America, a national service organization that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered topics and communities.
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