Posted 12/01/15 (Tue)
By Cecile Krimm
Beth Bakke Stenehjem has been the wife of a politician for a long time -- 20 years -- but few people would describe her as a “stand behind your man” kind of gal.
The Alkabo native, 48, grew up on a farm in Divide County among a pioneer generation of girls who were just as interested in shop class as home ec.
Though her husband, Wayne Stenehjem, 62, has served in some capacity as an elected official for decades, Beth has had her own pretty high profile career, worthy of wide admiration, if not in arenas with governmental clout.
That she was, indeed, standing by her man in Grand Forks last week as he announced his candidacy for governor of North Dakota, says less about what kind of First Lady she would make and more about how she approaches any challenge.
“Why not just take the chance and see what happens?”she asks.
Because she and Wayne both love their jobs -- she is the Executive Director of the North Dakota FFA Foundation -- running for governor is a decision they made as a couple.
“You just sometimes have to say ‘Maybe it’s time to serve in that capacity instead,’” Beth relates.
In arriving at the decision to run, Beth asked her husband if he would be disappointed if someone else got the job who was less likely to be effective.
From there, said Beth, it was an easier decision, though far from the foregone conclusion people have seemed to think since last spring when Gov. Jack Dalrymple announced he would not seek re-election.
Beth has no idea what a win would mean for her own career, but she knows victory would provide opportunities to advance causes that are dear to her.
“You do get a platform when you’re in that role that I don’t have now,” she said
Causes as diverse as organ donation (she donated a kidney to a friend a dozen years ago), vocational education and women’s safety are just a few causes to which she has long been personally committed.
Beth helped found a group in Bismarck called “AWARE ND,” which seeks to empower women to defend themselves against acts of violence.
As a result of her own training in that area, “I can throw the meanest elbow you’ve ever seen,” and she’s taught that skill to many others at weekend workshops.
“Women come out of there feeling like they can take care of themselves,” she said. “There’s never a time I leave there when I don’t think I’ve changed the life of a woman.”
Breast cancer is another cause, one that is more personal, “because my mom had breast cancer.”
Desire to support breast cancer research has dovetailed with Beth’s own desire to pursue a healthy lifestyle.
“I got into running a few years ago and at first I hated it, then I didn’t mind it and now I really love it,” she said.
She also walks several hours a week with a close friend with whom she can work out kinks both physical and intellectual.
“You get to solve the world’s problems in an hour,” she laughs, while also doing something good for your body.
The importance of vocational education and career development for youth and people with disabilities have always been a focus in her work life. Before she was with the FFA Foundation she worked for several years at the North Dakota School for the Blind. She has always advocated for the importance of meaningful work for all people and programs that help people realize their career potential.
She credits her own background with FHA and FFA for making her a good citizen and Divide County teachers Butch Haugland and Lee Lampert for encouraging females in non-traditional skills.
“They never batted an eye as far as letting us be part of the group,” said Beth, who loved working in the shop as much as cooking or baking.
She names groups like FBLA and FCCLA as equally important for kids. Something as simple as her own early training in parliamentary procedure, she said, has impacted her ability to make a difference in her world.
“You are such a better board member, a better committee member and you understand there are ways to do something,” she said, within a group.
Today, she looks back at her youth in Divide County and wonders, “How did I get here?” since she would never have imagined a potential role as first lady. At the same time, she feels growing up in Divide County gave her the sense anyone can do anything.
“Everybody is real and that’s probably why I still live here. People in North Dakota are good, good people -- good at heart.”
She is proud of the state’s role as the number one producer of several important food commodities and now, too, energy.
“We’re feeding the world and now we’re supplying energy for the world,” she marvels, adding that North Dakotans don’t brag enough about themselves, including the innovation they are demonstrating in these arenas and others.
She would love to be an ambassador for the state as First Lady, but she’ll do her best to make a difference, regardless of any title.
“We will work as hard as we can to make it happen, but if it doesn’t, we’ll be okay,” she said.
If voters do place her husband behind the governor’s desk, you’ll be less likely to see her standing by his side as off championing the causes to which she already gives so vigorously.