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'Rock of support' retires today: Thoreson spent 42 years with sheriff's office, 34 as chief deputy

FARGO - The calendar had just turned to 1971, and Jim Thoreson was studying at North Dakota State University to become a schoolteacher and coach when a friend told him about a job opening at the Cass County Jail.

Jim Thoreson and Craig Ritchie
Cass County Deputy Jim Thoreson is congratulated by defense attorney Craig Ritchie on Wednesday in the Cass County Courthouse prior to his retirement today. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

FARGO - The calendar had just turned to 1971, and Jim Thoreson was studying at North Dakota State University to become a schoolteacher and coach when a friend told him about a job opening at the Cass County Jail.

Thoreson applied, and Sheriff Jack Dailey summoned him to his office for an interview.

As Thoreson remembers it, Dailey asked him only two questions: How do you feel about alcohol consumption? And do you pay your bills on time?

"And I must have answered them to his satisfaction, because he hired me - $2 an hour - and that was the start of it," Thoreson said.

Now, this is the end of it. The 62-year-old Thoreson retires today after 42 years with the sheriff's office, the last 34 as chief deputy - the No. 2 post to the sheriff.


He's been a steadfast fixture not only to employees at the Cass County Courthouse but also to authorities throughout the area.

"Jim has been a rock of support in law enforcement for me and for others throughout the years," said West Fargo Police Chief Arland Rasmussen, who joined the sheriff's office shortly after Thoreson and still credits Thoreson for helping him land the job of police chief.

"I tell you what, if there's somebody that's never wavering, it's Jim Thoreson," he added.

Sheriff Paul Laney, who was first elected in November 2006 and kept Thoreson as his chief deputy, said he "has always been and will always be the foundation of the Cass County Sheriff's Office.

"His legacy and his influences on the sheriff's office will be seen for many, many years to come," Laney said in an email.

More than 240 people, including many of Thoreson's current and former coworkers, will attend a private retirement party to honor him tonight at the Red River Fairgrounds.

The Cass County Commission also will recognize Thoreson for his years of service at 3:30 p.m. Monday during its regular public meeting at the courthouse.

Sheriff's Capt. Rick Majerus, a 37-year veteran of the sheriff's office, will replace Thoreson as chief deputy. A promotion ceremony for Majerus will take place at 10 a.m. Friday in the old commission room at the courthouse.


A constant presence

Thoreson joined the sheriff's office as a part-time jailer on Jan. 12, 1971, at a time when only one jailer worked per shift. He went full-time later that year and became a patrol deputy in 1972.

Rasmussen, who is recovering from an April 13 open heart surgery, recalled that during the years he and Thoreson worked in patrol together in the 1970s, they had every fifth weekend off and had to use their own cars.

"We had magnetic signs that went on the car," he said.

Thoreson was working as an investigator when Dailey retired in 1978 and newly elected sheriff Don Rudnick took over on Jan. 1, 1979. Rudnick promoted Thoreson to chief deputy, a job he's held ever since.

Along the way, Thoreson also met his wife, Carol, who was working in juvenile court across the hall from the sheriff's office. They tied the knot in 1975, and she still works in Cass County District Court.

"Not a whole lot's changed in our lives," Thoreson said. "We've only lived in two houses and had the same jobs for all these years."

They also had two sons: Jeff, now a Minnehaha County sheriff's deputy in Sioux Falls, S.D., and Andy, a pharmacist in Minneapolis.


Thoreson announced his retirement in 2011, originally planning to step down at the end of 2012. But he thought that sitting around the house waiting for winter to end "might push me over the edge.

"So I said if I wait 'til May, I can be doing stuff outside and down at the lake and that sort of thing," he said.

Thoreson said his wife will continue to work at the courthouse, and he laughed as he recounted the many times she has told him why: "'Jim's used to going 100 mph, and he's going to go from 100 mph to zero, and I don't want to be around when that happens,'" he said.

'It's a lifestyle'

Thoreson said he has mixed feelings about retiring and is "a little apprehensive" about how he's going to handle not working. He anticipates the hardest part will be seeing news stories involving the sheriff's office and wanting to know what's happening behind the scenes.

"I've just got to stay away from here, because it's not my business anymore," he said.

Over the years, Thoreson found himself on the front lines of some tense situations, including car chases, violent domestic incidents and a shootout on a Red River bridge, Rasmussen recalled.

"We didn't have all the support that we have now," he said. "There was no SWAT team, there was no bomb team. It was like, 'Well, you guys are there so you might as well handle it because there isn't anybody else coming.' "


Rasmussen said Thoreson's longevity speaks to the quality of his work.

"If you weren't good, you wouldn't have been kept that long in a position of leadership like he was," he said.

Thoreson served on the interview committee for the West Fargo police chief's job in 1995 when Rasmussen, then the lieutenant in charge of investigations for the sheriff's office, applied for the job.

Rasmussen wrote his date of birth on his resume, not realizing he wasn't supposed to, and one committee member wanted to toss out his application until Thoreson talked the committee out of it, telling them not to punish Rasmussen for being honest.

"I think he saved my butt," Rasmussen said.

As the sheriff's staff has expanded from roughly a couple dozen people in 1971 to about 140 employees and 25 volunteers today, Thoreson is the only chief deputy many of them have known.

"I always tell the young ones, this isn't a job, it's a lifestyle, and the sooner you come to the realization that what you do is a lifestyle, the more you'll appreciate it," he said. "So, I've just enjoyed this whole career."

In retirement, he plans to do some fishing and golfing, catch up on neglected projects at his lake home and spend more time with his twin 3-year-old grandchildren in Sioux Falls.


And, every now and then, he may just drop by the office on the ground floor of the courthouse where he spent more than four decades serving Cass County.

"Hopefully I did some things right along the way," he said.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528

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