Germans from Russia Symposium

North Dakota State University
Fargo, North Dakota
July, 1990

Welcome Address

Jim L. Ozbun, President
North Dakota State University, Fargo

     Thank you, Professor Michael Miller. I think it's appropriate that I refer to him as professor this evening since he served as a faculty member at North Dakota State University for a number of years, and particularly after all of those "professor" jokes that he told us here this evening. Thanks for the introduction. I appreciate it very much.

     It's really a pleasure to have an opportunity to come and visit with you this evening. Sorry that I haven't been able to be with you for your entire program, but I have been attending Board of Higher Education meetings. I am also pleased that Professor Marzolf indicated to all of you that my wife is Norwegian. Since I've been married, I've had the opportunity very frequently to spend time in Starbuck, Minnesota. And in Starbuck, Minnesota, when we have a meeting like this, everyone there is Norwegian; and I've always felt rather out of place. So I think it's quite appropriate for the turnaround here this evening, for her to be the only Norwegian in the room. She'll recognize now how I feel when I go to Starbuck.

     It's interesting to be here this evening, which is Friday the 13th. Now, many of you may not be very superstitious; but in our society, Friday the l3th is the time that you avoid having opportunities like this to speak. I'm not exactly sure where Friday the 13th superstition came from. Presumably it didn't come from the Germans from Russia. Nevertheless, it's something that's very real in the United States. I'm sure that all of you have at some time or another in your life been reminded of Friday the 13th; and that you should be careful, as it's hard to say what might happen.

     Really, though, I did not expect that the superstition of Friday the 13th came from the Germans from Russia. Having had an opportunity to interact with Germans from Russia frequently as a child and as I grew up in Flasher, North Dakota, I knew that that wasn't the case. Friday the 13th or not, the symposium that you held on our campus was very timely. We are delighted to have the Germans from Russia scholars here visiting Fargo and North Dakota State University.

     These are exciting times in our nation. It's particularly exciting; I'm sure, as we think about what's going on in Germany, Eastern Europe, and in the Soviet Union. The changes that have occurred there over the last six or eight months have been interesting and significant. It probably is even more of an interest to you folks who 1) have heritage and roots back in that part of the world and 2) know what things are like and 3) recognize that these changes that are taking place at the present time have very significant meanings to the people who are still there. So it has been an exciting time, even the resignation of President Yeltsin yesterday from the Communist party sends a signal to that part of the world and to all of us: that communism is on the decline, and that democracy is perceived as a better way.

     The late Robert Hutchins spoke at NDSU back in the early 1960s at which time he quoted an ancient Chinese curse. The curse went something like this: "May you live in interesting times. II Indeed, I think we are living in interesting times.

     I feel strongly about holding this kind of conference, particularly in view of the times that we are in, and also because you're holding it in association with the land-grant university in this state. Our land-grant university has particular meaning and ties at the present time. Of course, it's our centennial; but it also coincides with the period of time when your ancestors moved to this region and became settlers and citizens of this area and state. So, indeed, these are significant times. As a consequence of these relationships, I was really quite pleased when Mike Miller and Tim Kloberdanz asked me to come and visit with you this evening.

     There are a number of reasons. First, I've already indicated that it is our centennial, and the state's centennial. Many of your ancestors came into this region at the time we were becoming a state. Secondly, since I've been back at North Dakota State University, I've been concerned about providing a multicultural experience on our campus, for our students certainly, but for everyone else associated with our campus at North Dakota State University.

Your coming here provides an opportunity to expand on that multicultural experience for many of our students and for you folks as well.

     It's interesting, as I think about the importance of providing a multicultural experience for the students in North Dakota. We often think of our student body as being rather homogeneous. The fact of the matter is that North Dakota has more citizens who are registered as belonging to an ethnic group than any other state in the nation. Something like 93 percent of the registered citizens of the state of North Dakota indicate that they belong to one or another ethnic group. That statistic comes from Dr. Kloberdanz, and he's not here to defend himself. But I heard him say that at a presentation not long ago. And I believe the statement to be accurate.

     I also have a number of personal reasons why I'm happy to have this conference here at Fargo and in association with North Dakota State University. As Arnold indicated, I grew up on a farm near Flasher, North Dakota, also close to Carson, North Dakota, in Grant County. I attended a one-room schoolhouse for my first eight grades in Lark, North Dakota, and then Flasher High School. Many of my classmates, both in grade school and high school, and college for that matter, were Germans from Russia. I've had a longtime association with these individuals, even though my own ancestry is primarily English and Irish. I've had a lot of contact through the years with Germans from Russia.

      According to Dr. Kloberdanz, the Germans from Russia who settled in the Northern Great Plains tended to settle and establish homesteads in close proximity to individuals of their own German-Russian ethnic areas. They thought it very important to come together in groups with similar religious beliefs, cultural traditions, and even the same regional dialects. As I discussed this with Dr. Kloberdanz and talked about where I grew up, he indicated to me that the area where I grew up in Grant County was really not fitting that pattern because, indeed, there were some seven different distinct groups that came into that immediate area: Carson, Flasher, Shields, and so on. Not being a German or a German from Russia, I'm not sure that I can enunciate all of these areas appropriately, but at least I'll go through the seven that were in that immediate vicinity where I grew up. At the time that I was growing up, obviously, I didn't know one from the other, but certainly the people who were there knew one from the other. We the Bessarabian Germans with last names such as Hersch, Kahl, Miller, Riehl, and Zeller. We the Liebental Black Sea Germans (Diehls, Fuchses, Krafts, and Scheerers), Beresan Black Sea Germans, Glückstal Black Sea Germans, and Black Sea German Catholics from the Kutschurgan Valley. We the Crimean Black Sea Germans who settled near Elgin, North Dakota, close to where I was growing up, and Volga German Lutherans with names like Bay, Heinitz, who came into that area from Mountain Lake, Minnesota, known for its Mennonite heritage and old world charm. So you can see that in that vicinity certainly we had a lot of Germans from Russia and from a lot of different regions of the Soviet Union.

     These individuals, as they came into that region, formed an unusually diverse ethnic community. Again, as I think back on my own experience growing up in the Flasher area, I didn't recognize that I was in that diverse of a community. I personally couldn't make the distinction. But, nevertheless, it was an unusually diverse ethnic community. In fact, it could have served as a forerunner for the Germans from Russia Heritage Society, as we know it today.

     Again, recognizing that we did have those seven groups in the community and looking back on it today, it's understandable why some of these groups had some difficulties in adjusting to their new community. And it was a hardship on them. It was a hardship not only because they were relatively small groups of a diverse ethnic background, but also because they were coming into a community oftentimes that had other very diverse groups: English, Irish, Norwegian, and Native Americans. Some ended up coming into the Solen-Shields area and being associated with the Sioux Indians, and many settled on that Indian reservation. So it was a difficult time. It was difficult because those groups had different values, different languages, different foods, and different clothing. Yet, as I think back, it's easy to recognize that these newcomers showed rugged determination, a deep faith that was very obvious throughout our community, strong family ties, and maybe most importantly, they were extremely hard working.

     It is recognized around the nation that citizens of North Dakota are hard working. Obviously, the Germans from Russia contribute in a major way to that image that we have as North Dakotans and Midwesterners.

     It's been said that the Germans from Russia made the steppes of South Russia bloom. I think that we could also say that this group of individuals made the prairies of North Dakota and South Dakota bloom and; indeed, they did. Many of them were homesteaders and hardworking farmers.

     I also want to reflect on my own personal interaction with the Germans from Russia as I was growing up in Flasher and Lark, North Dakota. As I indicated earlier, I attended a one-room school in Lark, North Dakota for my first eight grades. And I remember very clearly (1 was about in the third or fourth grade) when we had two Germans from Russia families move into the community. Prior to that, all of the kids in that school (twenty-one or so) were English, Irish and Norwegian. I remember when those two Germans from Russia families moved in, both were very large families. All of a sudden our enrollment in that one-room school increased very significantly by about seven or eight. The made an impression on me, certainly. But also made an impression on me that our new classmates had a hard time adjusting into that school environment. Not necessarily because of their own making; but because the rest of us, who had been there all along, didn't make it very easy for them to move into that community and become part of our school. I'm not proud at all of that situation. In fact, I'm rather embarrassed by it. But I think it does, indeed, reflect how difficult it was for newcomers to become part of that community and part of the school system and feel good about being citizens of North Dakota and of that community.

     Then I moved on to high school. Maybe fortunately for me, our farm was eight miles away and, being a freshman, I couldn't yet drive, so I was required to stay with someone else in the Flasher community during the week to attend school. The family that I stayed with was a Germans from Russia family, the Schaefers; and I got to know that family very well. We were very good friends. I had a good time interacting with the children in that family, and they were about my same age. It was a new experience for me to have an opportunity to eat some of their foods, some of which I hadn't eaten before. But I enjoyed them. It was an important cultural experience for me to be able to live with that family for a year, while I was in high school.
Also, throughout my high school days, there were many opportunities to attend German- Russian weddings. There was always dancing associated with those weddings. Mike has already indicated that Sonja and I enjoy dancing. But I really learned to dance by attending some of those weddings in that community. The music was always good, and there was lots of enthusiasm and energy going into it. Actually, I also had a chance on several occasions to dance at Lawrence Welk dances after he had moved to Los Angeles; but my father and mother danced to Lawrence Welk, when he was in the North Dakota area. So, I learned how to dance from the Germans from Russia.

     Then I came to North Dakota State University. It's interesting that the first individual whom I really had an opportunity to get to know well was Armand Bauer. At the time I didn't recognize that Armand Bauer was a German from Russia, but obviously he is. He has become actively involved in your Heritage Society; he has written a lot about the Germans from Russia; and he was a very close friend of mine throughout college. Coming from Flasher and not having any money, my first objective when I got to school wasn't necessarily to get an education but to get a job, because, without a job, I wouldn't have an opportunity to get an education. Armand Bauer is the one who gave me a job. He was involved with the soil-testing program at North Dakota State University. He needed some dishwashers and help in running that laboratory. Since I was looking for a job and he had one, we got to know each other quite well. I ended up working for Armand and with Armand for the six years that I was at North Dakota State University for both my bachelor's degree and master's degree. By the time I had put in that many years I could test soil just about as well as Armand. It was fun. I enjoyed working with him and interacting with him. Throughout my whole career as a student, I had lots of opportunities to be involved and associated with Germans from Russia.

     I think it is somewhat of an irony, as we think back on the history of North Dakota and the development of North Dakota State University and the establishment of the Germans from Russia homesteaders in the state of North Dakota that we have coexisted in this state for a century now. But it wasn't until 1976, some 85 years after the founding of North Dakota State University, that we saw fit to establish a course on the Germans from Russia. It took us a long time to recognize the importance of this group to our society. It's significant that this was the first course in the United States that dealt with that particular ethnic group, as listed in the Harvard Encyclopedia of Ethnic Groups. So it took us a long time to recognize the role of the Germans from Russia. I feel very good about the fact that over the years, at least since then, we have established a fine collection of literature in the library dealing with Germans from Russia. Mike Miller, who works in the library at North Dakota State University, is key to making that happen. Mike, thanks for that effort. I think we all here owe him thanks for making that possible. I hope that some of you had a chance to get over to the library and see that collection while you were on the campus.

     The symposium that we have had this week and this gathering here this evening and the fact that this has been done in connection with North Dakota State University helps to build continuing and hopefully lasting relationships between our educational institution and your Society.

     In the book, Plains Folk, North Dakota's Ethnic History, Dr. Kloberdanz authored a chapter. He wrote about some of the characteristics of the Germans from Russia. He indicated that these individuals had a characteristic mistrust of strangers and outsiders. Now, again, as I think back on the individuals who came into our community, I recognize that that was there, but I'm not sure that it was any more of a mistrust on the part of those coming into the community than it was on the part of those who already lived there. But, nevertheless, it's probably characteristic of the German-Russians; and it's understandable why that would be the case. If you look at the history of the Germans from Russia: How they were treated in Germany before they left Germany; and how they were treated in Russia before they decided to leave Russia. It's understandable why they developed a mistrust of outsiders and strangers.

     But I don't think that is necessarily all that unique. I think that as other ethnic groups have moved into this nation, be it the Vietnamese who are coming now, be it the Polish people who have been here for some time, be it the Norwegians or the Irish, each of those groups took a long time to adjust and to become part of the society. Maybe we're being more receptive today to the Southeast Asians and others coming in than has historically been the case; but certainly I think we can't be very proud of the fact that we've made it difficult for newcomers to come in and be part of our society, particularly when every one of us came from someplace else at some time. We should recognize the fact that that's the case and be willing to be more considerate of other individuals and their culture as they come into our community.

     We've had, this past week, some very distinguished scholars from the United States, Canada, and Europe: all coming together to share and to become part of the symposium associated with this convention. All of these individuals share common ethnic roots. I think that the fact that that's happened: the fact that these individuals have been successful and are moving ahead as members of society, speaks well for the system. I've been somewhat critical of the system, as I've made my comments here this evening. We should be criticized but, at the same time, I think the system has allowed all of us to be successful, to come up from our roots, pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, and to do the things that we thought were important in our society and in our community, and at the same time celebrate our ethnic background.

     Obviously, our forefathers who sent out the message that North Dakota was a great place to live exaggerated a bit. There was no gold behind every weed in North Dakota and there weren't any paths that led to fortune and fame, as these individuals may have been led to expect, but, nevertheless, I believe that we have provided a very hospitable and human environment for people to develop and grow and mature. If we contrast that with your relatives and friends who are still back in the Soviet Union, you would see how lucky and fortunate that we have been able to grow up, be a part of the United States, to help develop this great nation. The United States is a very young country .All of us had a very significant role in bringing this country to the point where it is today. We do need to feel good about that.

     Personally, I'm a strong believer in the value of education. My colleague here was putting down professors come this evening. But we must recognize that education is fundamental to the success of our society, to the success of a democracy, and to the continuation of freedom, and all of us need to recognize that, without education, without an educated voter, we're going to have a hard time surviving as a democracy. That education is fundamental to the survival of a democracy has been known from the very beginning. Thomas Jefferson indicated early on in our history as a nation that without an educated voter we would not be able to maintain the freedom that we enjoy in the United States today. It remains to be seen whether the Soviet Union and the Eastern European countries are going to be able to develop as a democracy, if they are going to be able to develop the freedom that we enjoy in the United States. It remains to be seen whether or not they will be dedicated to education and to learning and to becoming an educated voter so that they, too, can enjoy the freedoms that we have in the United States, because without that dedication to education on the part of individuals and without a determination on the part of society to provide public education for all people, their freedoms will not last.

     We enjoy those freedoms in the United States, and I hope and believe that solid educational programs will insure our freedoms and maintain our democracy in the future.

     I certainly hope that as we move into our second century as a state and as a university, and as you move through your years as a Society, that we maintain a close relationship between North Dakota State University and the Germans from Russia. That relationship is important. It is important that we retain it for the good of all. The good of our nation. The good of our state. And for the good of each of us as individuals.

     With that, I would like to close and wish you the very best as you continue with your convention here in Fargo. I hope that you enjoy it and I really and sincerely hope that you'll come back often to our community for visits.

      Thank you very much.

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