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A Transcendent Footprint

Katherine Kilbourne Burgum’s impact has shimmered brightly on the city of Fargo as told by her son, Governor Doug Burgum.

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Photos courtesy of the Kilbourne-Burgum Family

Katherine Kilbourne Burgum’s impact has shimmered brightly on the city of Fargo as told by her son, Governor Doug Burgum.

Trying to understand the legacy left behind by Katherine Kilbourne Burgum is a lot like Fargo, her favorite city. It is already wide and vast, but yet it keeps branching out further and further. Her impact is full of cultural and civic diversity, but most of all, it revolves around a love for community and curiosity. With this historic influence, Kilbourne Burgum has made a footprint in Fargo that may be bigger than any other. Outside of her effect on the city and region, she was also able to pass her values onto her children. Interestingly enough, one of them became North Dakota’s 33rd Governor.

“She was an inspiring teacher,” said Governor Doug Burgum. “She embodied the values that I still think are important today.” He says it was a child-like curiosity that made this possible. “Throughout her lifetime, she never lost her curiosity,” Burgum said. “She filled us in on that too. It seemed like her curiosity made taking risks less risky.”

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The Governor is the youngest of three kids had by Katherine and Joe Burgum. Growing up in Arthur, North Dakota, he sought influence in his mother and father. “I am grateful for both of my parents,” he said. “They were both great role models, engaged in the community. That provided us with a great foundation.” Even when Joe dropped out of graduate school to join the Navy after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the couple stayed close. Burgum believes it was this tight bond that made his mother who she was. “After dad got back from the war, they still had the same tight bond,” he said. “It’s that strength and perseverance that made her so special.”

“She embodied the values that I still think are important today.” – Doug Burgum

That resilience was put to the test after Joe Burgum passed away in 1971. The Burgum patriarch was only 53-years-old. Katherine Kilbourne Burgum saw that she needed to stay strong and move forward. That included her going back to a daytime job. She was named acting Dean of NDSU’s College of Home Economics in 1972. After becoming permanent Dean soon after, she got down to business immediately. By 1973, Katherine had been the primary benefactor in building a new facility for the College of Home Economics. That building has since been renovated and named after Katherine.

“She was incredibly successful in that role,” Burgum said. “She was a tenacious recruiter and I think she got something like 18 PhDs to come to the school. She also got the school accredited, which was another major accomplishment.” Though she retired from the Dean position in 1980, Katherine did not stop representing Fargo.

Governor Burgum recalls how Downtown Fargo resonated with his mother and the entire Burgum family. “Her father was Fargo’s first Public Health Director and she grew up at 1122 4th Street North, so she grew up around the original downtown,” he said. “She walked down Broadway to get to school every day. So she saw what downtown was and what it could be. At that time, the Black Building was the tallest structure in North Dakota.” Burgum also added that when Katherine was growing up, Downtown Fargo was beginning to grow as well, casting a wider net in the city.

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However, by the time Doug was growing up in the 1970s, Downtown Fargo was regressing. He recalls having to go the orthodontist’s office in Downtown Fargo when he was in middle school and seeing his mother gaze at the state of downtown. “It was declining by the ’70s when I was growing up,” he said. “And she took that personally, knowing what a downtown should be. It was through her that got my passion for downtown.”

That is why Burgum founded the appropriately named Kilbourne Group in 2006. It is obvious enough that the Governor named the company after his mother, but there is more to it than a simple namesake. “There would not be a Kilbourne Group at all if it was not for her instilling that downtown enthusiasm,” Burgum said. Since its inception, Kilbourne Group has enlivened much of the older downtown buildings with renovations to the Black Building, and the building where Prairie Roots Food Co-op now stands, too. They have also invested in new, exciting projects for the city like the much-anticipated Block 9 project. All of this was made possible because of Katherine Kilbourne Burgum’s love for downtown Fargo.

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As Governor, Burgum has continued to push the revitalization of downtowns throughout the state. His Main Street Initiative is grounded, in part, to what he calls “vibrant communities,” which revolve around downtowns. “Main Street is based on economics, workforce and communities,” he said. “We want North Dakota to be competitive. So, how do we build 13,000 or more jobs in our state? We can’t if all our cities have dilapidated downtowns.”

“When people are looking to move here, they look at the community first and the job second,” Burgum said. “We have to restore those downtown cores to make our communities more attractive. It is beneficial to taxpayers for downtown infrastructure to be thriving, it’s a workforce argument and taxpayer initiative.”

“There would not be a Kilbourne Group at all if it was not for her instilling that downtown enthusiasm.”

Katherine’s upbringing cultivated a lifestyle she would stand by for most of her life. “Growing up during the Great Depression, frugality was key,” Burgum said. “She lived almost her entire life that way.” Governor Burgum says that changed at age 82 when Katherine was on the Board of Directors for Doug’s Great Plains Software company. Though the company wrestled to gain capital in the early-going, Katherine stood with her son. “We had struggled through the ’80s and ’90s,” Burgum said. “Nobody in our family had bought shares, except her. I remember we were at a meeting with investment bankers and they all thought she would sell her shares. Then she got up and said, ‘I’d actually like to buy some shares.’ She believed in us that much.”

Great Plains Software was eventually acquired by Microsoft in 2000.It was this purchase by Microsoft that let Katherine move out of her usually economical approach to money. “The acquisition by Microsoft gave her the extra capital to do philanthropic work,” Governor Burgum said. She continued these campaigns up until the end.

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Katherine Kilbourne Burgum died peacefully on April 12, 2005, shortly after her 90th birthday. However, the Burgum family opted to do something different with her estate. “In her honor, we set up a foundation using her estate rather than have it go to us as a family,” Burgum said. “Now, whenever we do a gift for the foundation, I always think that this would not be possible if she had not believed in us.” The Burgum family has provided funds to the Plains Art Museum and the Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre. Because of their generosity, Katherine Kilbourne Burgum has her name on The Stage at Island Park’s pavilion and Plains Arts’ Center for Creativity.

Governor Burgum reflected on his mother’s final few months. “She was full of grace, even if she knew she was at the end of her life,” he said. “She never put a limit on us kids or her grandkids, she always wanted us to reach higher.”

Katherine Kilbourne Burgum’s youngest son knows the sweeping impact his mother had on this city, region and state. “Her desire to create beautiful spaces, her appreciation of art. She was just really something,” he said. “It’s hard sometimes because all the things we’ve been able to do since she left are things she would’ve loved to do.”

Never the less, Governor Doug Burgum believes his mother would be happy if she were still around today. “She would just be tickled about everything we’ve done,” he said. “And we’re just getting started.”

“Her desire to create beautiful spaces, her appreciation of art. She was just really something.”

February 26, 1915

Katherine Kilbourne is born in Minneapolis, Kansas.

1919

The Kilbourne family moves to Topeka, Kansas.

1923

The Kilbournes move to Fargo where Katherine’s father, Dr. Burton Kilbourne, became the city’s first public health director.

1933

Katherine graduates from Fargo Central High School and chooses to attend college at North Dakota Agricultural College.

1937

Kilbourne graduates from NDAC (now known as North Dakota State University) with majors in Home Economics, Education, Foods and Nutrition and a minor in Journalism.

1939

After moving East to New York, Katherine taught home economics in a Long Island high school. She did this while taking masters classes at Columbia University. She received her masters that same year in Home Economics, Education and Related Art.

1939

Katherine becomes an assistant professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. While there, she was recognized for her groundbreaking research in airborne seafood transport.

1944

Katherine marries Joe Burgum of Arthur, North Dakota. The couple met while studying at NDAC.

1952

After Joe returned from serving in the Navy in World War II, the couple moved back to Arthur. Their first child, Bradley, was born in 1952.

1953

The couple’s second child, Barbara, is born.

1956

Youngest son Doug is born.

1968

Katherine serves as the Republican Party’s National Committeewoman for North Dakota.

1971

Joe Burgum passes away from cancer at the age of 53.

1972

Katherine becomes acting Dean for NDSU’s College of Home Economics.

1980

Katherine retires from her position at NDSU.

1984

Governor George Sinner appointed Katherine to the Study Commission on Fitness and Productivity.

1989

Katherine voted the North Dakota ballot in the National Electoral College for President George H.W. Bush.

1998

The facility Katherine helped build for the College of Home Economics is renovated. It is named after her.

April 12, 2005

Katherine Kilbourne Burgum passes away in Fargo.

2011

The Burgum family donates funds to the Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre to build the Katherine Kilbourne Burgum pavilion at The Stage and Island Park.

2012

The Katherine Kilbourne Burgum Center for Creativity is built in the Plains Art Museum in Fargo.

Nolan Schmidt

Written by Nolan Schmidt

Nolan is the Editor of Fargo Monthly. He is originally from Bismarck, ND and is a graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead. Outside of Fargo Monthly, Nolan loves to write fiction short stories, among other things.

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