It has been said of Katherine Burgum, "She can walk into a room full of people and make you feel you're the one person she was really hoping was going to be there." By the time the event is over, everyone in the room will feel the same way.
That air of infectious enthusiasm has not abated nor diminished at the age of 87.
In fact, on the advice of her personal trainer, the former dean of the College of Home Economics at North Dakota State University is now practicing a skill that might have come in handy back in the days of budget hearings with her fellow deans (99.44 percent of whom were males). She's learning how to box.
That came about a couple of months ago when she called one of Fargo's health care providers and said, "Send over the best personal trainer you have for working with an 87-year-old woman." The hospital folks, unaccustomed to being interviewed by a prospective patient, nonetheless agreed to go along with it. Burgum now has her personal trainer, a woman named Charlotte Hermes, and is happy with her choice. "Exercising has been good for me," Burgum observes.
Still, one day the trainer came up with a question that may have seemed a little strange.
"Have you ever boxed?" the trainer queried.
"Not recently," the former dean replied.
"It's a good way to loosen up those muscles at the top of your back," the trainer advised.
"I don't see any punching bags," Burgum responded.
"I just put these pads on my hands," the trainer pointed out, "and move them where we want you to hit."
Ever game to try something new "Kay," as she is known, agreed to go a couple of rounds with the pads.
"I was having a great time practicing uppercuts, left jabs and hard rights to the midsection when this old guy came up and said, 'Lady, if she takes you on the road make sure you get the center ring. It always pulls the biggest bets.'" Burgum has always been a scrapper. She believes it goes back to her childhood on Fargo's North Fourth Street where she claims to have been a member of a gang.
The youngest of five Kilbourne children and the only girl, Burgum once told a reporter, "It taught me how to function in a man's world," adding, "... family expected me to be just as productive, just as effective and just as responsible as any of the boys." That experience would stand her in good stead in years to come.
Katherine Kilbourne was born at Minneapolis (Kansas that is, not Minnesota). Her dad, a public health physician, brought the family to Fargo in 1923 when Kay was 8 and settled in a house at 1122 4th Street North. "It was a great neighborhood," she recalls. Other members of the Fourth Street Gang included a group of fellow 8-year-olds: C. Warner Litten, who lived at 1045 North Broadway, Betty Baillie (later Betty Litten), Hugh Anstett, John Jenkins and Ellen Blair, all of whom would grow up to be solid citizens of Fargo, and whose names would become very familiar in both the community and "the AC" as NDSU was known in those days, in later years. Burgum's dad had chosen Fargo from among a number of possibilities including Atlanta. His reason? Because, unlike Kansas, "Fargo cools off at night."
Being a public health physician was not a popular occupation in 1923, even among some of Dr. Kilbourne's fellow doctors. "Dad was an epidemiologist," Burgum recalls, "concerned with contagious diseases." The city of Fargo had employed him to be its health officer for five years as part of a nationwide campaign to improve health conditions, including the purity of local water supplies. In those days most people preferred the water from their backyard wells.
Dr. Kilbourne liked to use his children to demonstrate that things like the Schick test for tuberculosis didn't really hurt very much. "I underwent more Schick tests than any other person in the whole world," Burgum says.
Dad would say, "'OK, who's going with me tonight?' He'd administer the test and I'd have to walk down the aisle holding my arm out to show everyone I was OK." Looking back on that experience, Burgum believes it helped her develop an appreciation for the importance of public issues and for keeping an open mind about them.
At age 12, a solo trip to Washington, D.C., when Burgum was 12 and in the seventh grade, she had another "defining experience." As a student at Horace Mann Junior High School, she won a county essay writing contest among junior and senior high students. First prize was to represent North Dakota at a national Red Cross convention in Washington, D.C. Burgum and a boy from Casselton won the nod. "It was the biggest day of my life up to that point."
For some reason, the student from Casselton wasn't able to make the trip, so Burgum boarded the train alone, armed with a couple of shoeboxes filled with candy bars and a paperback book provided by some of her classmates. "I didn't sleep a wink on the train." Too much excitement.
"These days," she reflects, "no sane set of parents would put a 12-year-old on the train and send her halfway across the country." But those were simpler times.
Although her parents may have had a few reservations about sending her off alone, they made arrangements with the Traveler's Aid folks in Chicago to meet the train and put her on the right one for Washington. Friends of her parents, another doctor and his wife, had agreed to meet her in D.C. and let her stay with them. All of that went without incident, according to plan.
When the time came for her presentation at what is now the Corcoran Art Museum in Washington, the young emissary from North Dakota was ready. "Although my notes fell under a table and were unrecoverable just as I got up to speak, I knew my topic - What the Junior Red Cross had accomplished in North Dakota - well enough by then to wing it without my notes. "That was the point where I decided a person from North Dakota could do anything they chose to tackle. I never worried about public speaking again after that."
Back in Fargo the 12-year-old celebrity was in demand to speak at senior Red Cross gatherings, one of which was held in the Lincoln Log Cabin at the college on the top floor of Old Main.
The guests had just finished dinner when it came time for her to speak. The college's famous impresario, Professor Alfred Arvold was master of ceremonies. Just as Burgum began her presentation, Arvold announced "They can't see you!" "He picked me up bodily and stood me on the table with the hem of my dress about eye level, right in the middle of the dirty dishes. Another defining experience."
Burgum enrolled at North Dakota Agricultural College in 1933 and quickly emerged as a student leader. Over the course of the ensuing four years she was elected president of Gamma Phi Beta Sorority, editor of the 1937 Bison Annual, and an outstanding member of the senior class. She was graduated in 1937, by which time the Kilbournes had moved to Montana. Offered a teaching job in Beach, which is about as far as you can go in North Dakota and not be in Montana, she boarded the train at Fargo, setting her alarm clock to go off in plenty of time to take a look at Beach. Perhaps luckily in retrospect, the alarm clock didn't wake her up and she slept all the way to Helena. That fall, instead of taking the job at Beach, she took a position teaching junior high and high school home economics at Sayville, N.Y., on Long Island, about as far as you can get from Montana and still be on the continent.
That job allowed her to earn a master's degree at Columbia University during evenings and weekends, which in turn led to a teaching position at Wayne State University in Detroit. She taught there from 1939 to 1947, becoming an assistant professor and research associate in the university's school of business.
Katherine and Joe Burgum had met as students at the NDAC. He went on to the University of Minnesota Law School, then enlisted in the Navy. After a several-year courtship they were married in Chicago in 1944. He spent most of the next three years on a destroyer in the Pacific and Aleutian Islands, his service culminating with the Japanese surrender.
Still essentially newlyweds, Joe and Katherine Burgum returned to Arthur in 1947 and started a family. Over the course of the next several years, Brad, Barbara and Doug were born, and Katherine Burgum would embark on a 27-year career as homemaker, community leader and political activist. That role would change quite dramatically with Joe Burgum's untimely death in 1971.
That same year, in her new role as head of the household with three teenage children to raise, Burgum agreed to serve as the alumni representative on a committee searching for a new dean of the NDSU College of Home Economics. The following year, when the search proved to be unsuccessful, she agreed to become temporarily the acting dean while the search continued. Later, on a unanimous recommendation of the home economics faculty to President L.D. Loftsgard, she was appointed dean of the college.
At an event rededicating the Family Life Center as the Katherine Kilbourne Burgum Family Life Center in 1998, Don Morton, then assistant to the president at NDSU, recalled, "Back when President Laurel Loftsgard accepted the recommendation of the home economics faculty to appoint Katherine Burgum as dean, one can't help but wonder if he really knew what he was in for. "Practically within minutes of that announcement, the new dean was camped on the front steps of Old Main, insisting a new building was the college's top priority."
"Still," Morton added, "President Loftsgard had a lot of respect for people who knew how to get things done. I have a feeling that he sensed he had made the proper choice."
During Burgum's eight years in the deanship, dramatic changes took place in the college. Enrollment grew to more than 1,100 majors.
The Family Life Center was built, reflecting Burgum's considerable powers of persuasion with the university administration, the North Dakota Legislature and a sizable group of private donors.
The number of faculty members holding doctoral degrees grew from four to 18.
The NDSU College of Home Economics became ranked among the top 15 colleges of home economics in the nation, and 26th among 400 eligible colleges of home economics to be accredited by the American Home Economics Association.
The 1979 North Dakota Legislature earmarked $100,000 in Agricultural Experiment Station funding for research projects in home economics, something for which Burgum had campaigned throughout her professional career.
As a charter member of the NDSU Development Foundation, created during a meeting at Medora in 1968, Burgum served with distinction, first as its secretary, then president, board chair, then member of its executive committee, over the course of a quarter century.
In 1976, on the 300th anniversary of the American Revolution, Jim and Jean Leet and Erv and Marie Rector volunteered to be hosts to the Development Foundation board's semi-annual meeting in London. Rector was managing director of Burroughs Corporation operations in the United Kingdom and Leet was a senior vice president of Pan American Airlines. Partly through her political affiliations, Kay Burgum had come to know Texan Anne Armstrong, at the time serving as American Ambassador to the Court of St. James. Largely because of that connection the NDSU contingent was treated royally, receiving a private briefing at the U.S. Embassy, and an invitation to be guests of the Armstrongs at Winfield House, which is the official residence of U.S. ambassadors to England.
For the NDSU board members, a highlight of the visit was being announced individually by the Armstrongs' veddy proper British butler as they came down the stairs of the palatial British mansion on London's historic Regents Park.
The Development Foundation honored Kay Burgum with its Service Award in 1994. That recognition had been preceded with an Alumni Achievement Award in 1971, designation as a Blue Key Doctor of Service in 1978, an Honored Alumnus in 1981 and an Honorary Doctor of Science in 1982.
Foundation Trustee Bob Reimers, in presenting the group's Service Award, referred back to the Declaration of Independence and its commitment to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," noting "I can think of no one who embodies those treasured American aspirations more than my friend, Katherine Burgum. And, in so doing ... has set an example for women ... and all of her fellow citizens."
Since her retirement more than 20 years ago, Burgum has continued that pattern of active involvement in civic, professional, business and philanthropic affairs.
As a member of the original board of directors of Great Plains Software, of which her son, Doug, became president, (it's now Microsoft Great Plains) she played a major role in the company's early growth and expansion and, in that sense, the economy of North Dakota.
Some years ago, comedian Woody Allen put it quite succinctly in a commencement address, advising the new crop of graduates: "Life is a series of pitfalls and opportunities. The trick is to avoid the pitfalls, seize the opportunities, and be home by five o'clock."
Kay Burgum rarely got home by 5 during the years of her professional life. On the other hand, over the course of a relatively long life, she clearly encountered her share of pitfalls and opportunities. Characteristically, she dealt with them with intelligence, verve, good humor and dogged perseverance.
- Jerry Richardson