Dare Greatly, Think Boldly: An interview with Ed O’Keefe

The Grand Forks Foundation for Education works hard every day to provide students and educators with maximum opportunities for excellence through granting, scholarship, and alumni programs. One of those programs is a quarterly publication called The Red Cent, which I am happy to say I am able to contribute to on a fairly regular basis.

In the latest issue of The Red Cent, I had a hand in an interview with Grand Forks’ Ed O’Keefe, CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum board, and I wanted to share his comments because, as we know, the Library will be a pretty, pretty big deal.

The Red Cent is a print-only publication available to members of the Grand Forks Foundation for Education. To become a member for a very reasonable $33 a year, click here or email them here. You can check out how the Foundation uses those membership dollars for good by following their Facebook page or checking out their website. (And thank you to the Foundation for kindly allowing me to publish this interview here!)

Ed O’Keefe has been doing great things since he graduated from Red River High School in 1996.  A graduate of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Ed spent much of his career bringing award-winning multimedia to the masses – from a radio role with ABC News, to an executive producer for ABC News Digital, to vice president of CNN Money and CNN politics, to CNN’s senior vice president of content development.  Today Ed is the CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum board, and he graciously sat down to answer a few questions about the Library, life in Grand Forks, and what he would like to tell future graduates:

Can you provide an overview of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library?

The Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library will celebrate the life and legacy of Theodore Roosevelt. The pillar principles of the project are Leadership, Citizenship, and Conservation. We will situate the library in the 193 acres of US Forest Service land that was purchased from the US Forest Service as a result of a federal act in 2020. The landscape is the library, and we are investing in the Native Plant Project, a habitat and species restoration project. We’re working with the Medora Grazing Association to show responsible conservation practices in a burning grace plan. The site and the building itself is designed by Snøhetta, a regional and US architecture firm that has gracefully designed a building which almost disappears into the landscape and frames of view of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the only park named for a person in the National Park system.

What is the timeline for the completion of the library?

The Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library hopes to begin construction in the spring of 2023, and we anticipate a substantially complete building by the summer of 2026. We hope to celebrate the 250th anniversary of America on July 4th, 2026, which, like the bicentennial of 1976, will be a nationwide patriotic celebration with the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library being a star in that nationwide constellation of celebrations.

What role will the library play in preserving and promoting the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt?  How will technology play a part in that?

Theodore Roosevelt is a remarkable U.S. President. He was the first president to fly in an airplane, the first President to drive a car, the first president to be submerged in a submarine, and the first president to use a telephone. He ushered in what we now refer to as the American Century. He was a thoroughly modern president, and in many ways dramatically expanded the US’s role in the world. He’s the first and only president to be awarded the Medal of Honor. He is credited with having saved football and created what now is the National Governors Association, the first meeting of governors in the White House. Conservation is a big part of what we will do to promote the life and legacy of Theodore Roosevelt. We will focus on our pillar principles of leadership, citizenship, and conservation, with conservation being foremost amongst those three. In celebrating conservation, we will be a fully sustainable library. We will achieve zero energy, zero emission, zero carbon, and zero waste alongside North Dakota’s goal to become the first carbon neutral state by 2030. So, we plan to be a living library and celebrate not only the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt, but encourage visitors and participants to think about their lives, how they can dare greatly, live passionately, think boldly, and care deeply, just like you.

What role will the library play in elevating western North Dakota (and North Dakota as a whole)?

The Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library will be situated in Medora, North Dakota, which is already the state’s number one tourist attraction. It is home to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which receives 800,000 visitors a year. And of course, home to the Medora Musical, which between Memorial Day and Labor Day, sees upwards of 125,000 visitors in just that summer swell. The Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library will be a remarkable addition to this already incredibly successful part of the state and will be a hallmark for what we’d like to think of as the T.R. triangle. Families on road trips who want to travel to western North Dakota and be inspired by the landscape that inspired Theodore Roosevelt, could potentially visit Mount Rushmore in South Dakota or travel west to visit the Yellowstone Glacier in the national park system. We really think that this will be an incredibly impactful project across the entire state. Just as in South Dakota, there is an impact from Sioux Falls all the way to the western part of the state and the location of Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills. So, we think the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library will have an impact in Fargo, in Grand Forks, in the eastern part of the state as well. And, of course, a big impact on the tourism in western North Dakota.

What type of educational programs and events will the library offer?

The library hopes to do all kinds of inventive and innovative programming. We aspire to create a K12 education initiative, which will invite every 8th grader in the state of North Dakota to come to the library, get a civics education inside the library, and have an outdoor adventure in the National Park. We hope to do quite a lot with the indigenous tribal communities in North Dakota. We are very fortunate to have had representatives of each of the tribal nations come to Medora and have met with those tribal nations to talk about programs that can be inclusive, innovative, and understanding with the history and relationship with our native communities in North Dakota and beyond. We are talking about doing quite a lot of programming with the National Park. Having a 75,000-acre park as your backyard opens all kinds of opportunities in biking, hiking, outdoor recreation, and horseback riding. This would be the only presidential library you could walk, bike, hike, or take a horse to. There is also a lot of programming we are interested in with regard to veterans as well. Looking at the course of conservation and sustainability initiatives, these are all the types of programs and events that we can continue to build for many years and decades after the opening of the library.

How has the library collaborated with other organizations and institutions in its planning and development?

Ninety-nine-percent of Theodore Roosevelt’s archive is scattered throughout the United States and the world. The collection is primarily with the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian system, the American Museum of Natural History, and Harvard University. The Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library is working with each of these institutions, hoping to develop relationships. Particularly with the National Park system, which has the Sagamore Home and the boyhood home in New York in its National Historic sites. We hope to work with these organizations and institutions to develop loan agreements so we can bring this part of the archive that has never been on public display into the library and public view for all to see.

How will the landscape play a part in the experience of the TRPL?

We like to say that the library is the landscape. Theodore Roosevelt was our greatest conservation president, and it’s arguable that his greatest legacy is the protection and preservation of 230,000,000 acres of public lands, the creation of the US Forest Service, and his creation of bird and wildlife reserves. He really used the power of the Presidency to set aside land both for protection and development. As Theodore Roosevelt said at the dedication of the Cornerstone of Yellowstone National Park, these parks and places are for the benefit and enjoyment of the people. We take that legacy very seriously at the TRPL and are working on the surrounding landscape. The building itself will include a transversal roof and the frame of the east and west wing provides a viewshed into Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the only park named for a person, let alone a president. On the 93 acres, there’s a walking pathway where you can encounter different destinations or pavilions, an outlook from which you can get a perspective of 360 degrees around the Badlands that so inspired Theodore Roosevelt, a stargazing pavilion to look up at the dark night sky, and a look at ecology and conservation in practice. We’re working with the Medora Grazing Association to do responsible grazing of the land to imitate the bison migration and grazing pattern. And then having a responsible, controlled burn plan every two to three years so we can restore the native habitat and native species and ultimately show what conservation means, not just tell what conservation means.

How can people get involved and support the library?

The Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library wants everyone in the arena for T.R., North Dakota, and our nation. If you’d like to get involved in the T.R. library, please go to www.trlibrary.com. Or if you’d like to donate to the library, you can go to www.trlibrary.com/donate.

How has growing up in Grand Forks influenced your life?

I loved growing up in Grand Forks, ND. It was, as I like to say now, a big-small town. I always felt safe, I always felt like I had a community, and I always felt like everyone was there to help and support me. I had wonderful teachers; Gene Martin, who recently passed away at Trader Middle School, Mrs. Sanford, my third-grade teacher, was a wonderful influence on me. I’ve talked about Dean Opp and Brad Sherwood, two of my teachers at high school. I of course was a Red River Roughrider, which might have influenced some of what I’m doing now for the T.R. library. But it’s just a wonderful place where I felt like I was loved and supported by the entire community in Grand Forks.

How do you feel that being a North Dakotan has shaped your perspective and values?

North Dakotans are good and decent people. I think that Theodore Roosevelt meant what he said when he said, “I would never have been president if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota.” North Dakotans are full of common sense, decent, respectful, and kind people. I feel like the whole state has a no-jerks policy, and I just always enjoyed the commonsense practicality of Midwestern values. I tried to carry forward in my life with humility, gratitude, and respect for all people and their perspectives. Those are certainly lessons I learned in particular as a North Dakotan.

In what ways do you think that growing up in Grand Forks prepared you for your future?

Grand Forks prepared me for my future in many different ways. I’ve talked about how much I enjoyed living in the big-small town of Grand Forks, where everyone felt familiar, friendly, helpful, and supportive. But I think it also grounded me with the values and perspective of a Midwesterner who enjoys and values hard work, resilience, responsibility, and just doing the right thing and being a good person. Grand Forks was a dynamic, interesting community. When I say that I’m from North Dakota, I think people have the vision of a rural community without many people. Grand Forks is a vibrant, active town. We have a big military base. We are an hour-and-a-half from the Canadian border, so we see a lot of Canadian tourists. We’ve got the University of North Dakota, which of course has 10,000 students of all different backgrounds and perspectives. We are right across the Red River from Minnesota, so we had opportunities to spend time in other cities and places. I felt like I had a small town with all the access and activity of a big town. To me, growing up in Grand Forks prepared me for my future by giving me the best of both worlds.

Can you share any specific memories or experiences from your time at Red River High School?

I have a lot of fond memories of Red River High School. I think mostly about my time in the summer performing arts company, SPA, as well as student government. I ran for and won student council president while I was in high school. That was my first experience with leadership. I really enjoyed thinking about what issues were important to my classmates and being able to represent their voices with the administration in school. I was involved in every musical and play that Red River High School produced during my years there. I just had some impactful teachers and people who care deeply about me and made it clear that they were always interested in seeing me succeed. It was just a wonderful place to go to High School.

Do you have any connections or relationships formed at Red River continued to play a role in your life?

Yes, I really enjoyed Dean Opp and Brad Sherwood as my teachers at Red River High School and I’m very fortunate that throughout the rest of my life I’ve stayed in touch with them. When they take the biannual trips to New York City, I would give tours and greet the students from Red River. When I was at ABC News and at CNN Studios, I gave a backstage behind-the-scenes look at media, journalism, and broadcast news. I’ve continued to stay in touch with a number of classmates over the years through Facebook and social media. But you know, really, it’s the lasting memories, the values, and the impact of the teachers that I’ve carried with me the longest throughout my life. Bob Kulak was a teacher at Schroeder Middle school and then became an administrator at Red River while I was in high school. He wrote one of my college recommendations and I’ll never forget that, he said I was a “puckish purveyor.” That has always stuck with me that Bob Kulak had that impact on my early life, and probably that phrase got me into college. So, thank you, Mr. Kulak.

If you could give one piece of advice to a Grand Forks graduating senior, what would it be?

I like to say that you should never underestimate an underestimated person and one of the greatest advantages you will have after graduating Red River High School and being from Grand Forks, ND is that you will be underestimated in your life. People will, from other parts of the country and other parts of the world, believe that you can’t do it, and you can. Being underestimated is a gift, use it to your advantage. I would also say that the greatest lessons I’ve learned in life have not been when I’m talking, but when I’m listening. Be curious and ask good questions. I became a journalist and worked in media for nearly 20 years, and that entire industry is based on a pretty basic premise, which is asking questions, wondering, and being curious about the world around you. I would say in general to do good work, work hard, and be kind. Those are the things I’ve learned in Grand Forks and in North Dakota, is that, you know, you can be a great, enormous success in life, but if you are a jerk or someone that people don’t want to be around, it’s not worth all that much. So be curious, be kind, work hard, and enjoy the fact that you are probably going to be underestimated.

“I have always said I would not have been President had it not been for my experience in North Dakota.”

– President Theodore Roosevelt

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A Thanksgiving story | November 23, 2022

By the time you read this it will be Thanksgiving Eve and I will be pretending like I’m so overwhelmed with preparations while my mother “gives me a hand” by doing it all.  I am very grateful for my parents (my dad will participate by staying out of the way), and my husband and father-in-law (Kyle decided to deep-fry the turkey, which…has been a whole thing), and my children (who will spend the day fighting, as per Thanksgiving tradition), and all of you.  Thank you for being with me these past two years.

Also, thank you for the kind messages related to my grandfather’s passing.  My grandpa lived a very long (he would have been 96 in December), happy, love-filled, comfortable life, and died peacefully with all his wits about him – which, as his rabbi said, is something we should all hope to do.  Still, losing someone who adores you unconditionally feels pretty lonely, and so I appreciate the attention.

Anyway, I thought I’d share a story about my grandparents because 1) they were awesome, and 2) this particular event coincidentally occurred at Thanksgiving.

Like I said, my Grandpa Mel and Grandma Mar (her name was Marion, but we called her Grandma Mar because grandmother in French is grand-mere, which sort of sounds like Grand Mar; and if my grandmother had to be old enough to be a grandma she would at least be a glamorous French one) were fantastic.  They were on a first-name basis with half of the maître d’s in New York and New Jersey.  They vacationed with (and had a bonkers story about) Dick Cavett – and since I’m name-dropping, Judy Blume was at my engagement party because she was writer-friends with my grandma.  My grandpa performed magic tricks at all of my childhood birthday parties; and for my eighteenth birthday, they took my sister and me to Paris and London.  I lived with them for a college summer, during which we’d celebrate the end of each workday with a martini.  They were fun, and cool, and had amazing taste, and sought out unique and interesting experiences.

They were also totally normal grandparents, and that’s what I’m going to tell you about today.

It was the year 1999, and I was getting ready to take the Amtrak train from Boston to New Jersey for some quality Thanksgiving/Grandma and Grandpa time.  I called my grandparents from our apartment landline (because it was 1999) to let them know I was headed to the station and expected to get on the 2:00 pm (or whatever, it was 22 years ago) train.

“What time will you arrive?”  Grandma asked.

“I think around 5,” I told her.  “I can call you from a payphone (re: 1999) when I get there to confirm?”

“No need,” Grandma said.  “Grandpa’s already at the station.”  We both laughed, although I wasn’t sure if it was a joke or not because my grandfather was always VERY EARLY to EVERYTHING.

(Here’s a side story to that: The Grand Forks International Airport is actually one of the busiest in the country for take-offs and landings because we have an aviation school in town; however, the city only has 50,000 people so the airport itself is just two gates.  Today those two gates are in a fancy airport building; but, in the 1980’s, it was one big room separated by a metal detector with a restaurant tacked onto the end.  My grandparents were flying back to New Jersey on the 7:00 am flight, and so my grandfather got to the airport at 3:00 am…and then sat in the car for two hours, because the airport itself didn’t open until 5:00.  Finally, a worker arrived; and so my grandparents went in, the worker checked their bags, took them through the metal detector, and then ripped their boarding pass on the other side.  When they sat down in the waiting room, my grandma checked her watch: 5:08.)

“I hope you do get in at 5 so we can go to the house before dinner,” Grandma said.  “We need you to help us with something very important.”

“What’s that?”  I asked.

Earlier that year, my grandparents had bought their first compact disc player; in celebration, my uncle had gifted them several CDs of their favorite jazz musicians.

“The player is broken,” Grandma said.  “We need you to fix it.”

“Well, I don’t know much about CD players,” I told her, “But I’ll do what I can.”

“You are a technology wiz,” she said (Note: I was not).  “I’ve been telling everyone about that award you won.”

“Which award?”  I asked.

“You know, the very prestigious award from BU,” she said.

I thought for a moment.  “The Dean’s List?  That’s not an award, it’s just a semester grade thing.  Lots of people are on it.”

“Maybe,” she said, brushing me off.  “But you’re the very best.”

“Obviously,” I said.

I arrived in New Jersey, and, of course, Grandpa was there waiting for me.  He gave me a big kiss and a hug and said,

“We are going to the house before dinner because we need you to help us with something very important.”

“Grandma told me,” I said.  “I’ll do what I can.”

“You are a champion of academia and science,” he said (Note: Nope).  “I have been telling everyone about how you got a job with an international company your first month at school.”

I thought for a moment.  “The Gap?  I’m not even allowed to use the cash register.”

“You’ll be running the place by the end of the year,” he said, brushing me off.  “They are going to make you the CEO.”

“Naturally,” I said.

At the house, they presented me with a little round boombox.

“We put the CD in,” Grandpa said.  “And we pressed play, but nothing happens.”

“You have to turn it on first,” I said, flipping the On/Off switch.  The CD player fired up, and a trumpet blared.

“Ahhhhh!”  Grandma sighed.  “You did it!  Such a smart girl.”

“Smart and good-looking,” Grandpa said.  “She gets both from her grandmother.”

He offered his hand to Grandma, and the two of them danced around the living room for the rest of the song.  We left for dinner a few minutes later, where we toasted the coming Thanksgiving, as well as my exceptional genius and beauty.

My parents, while very supportive, are fully aware of my intellectual abilities – and so I don’t think we’ll be celebrating my brilliance this year.  I’m sure, however, we’ll raise a glass to my (and my sister’s) children – whom my parents know, without a doubt, to be the brightest stars in the entire universe.

The photo above is of my grandma and grandpa and was taken by my Uncle Dean when they were 45 years old (and he was 19). It was the first photo Dean had taken with an SLR camera – a used Nikkormat for $175. Related/unrelated, my uncle – Dean Landew – is a rock musician with a bunch of songs on the Radio Indie Alliance Top 10. You check out his music here.

This week’s news has makeover artists, football players, and monks. Read on.

Country House and Angel 37 paired up to offer a no-catch free Thanksgiving dinner on Monday. (KX Net)

Patrons of the Heavens Helper’s Soup Café in Bismarck were treated to a limo ride and makeovers, courtesy of Glance Salon. (KFYR TV)

The North Dakota State College of Science football team – including their 49-year-old defensive lineman, Ray Ruschel – are playing for the NJCAA DIII National Championship next week. (Not The Bee)

The entire town of Hankinson is celebrating Cody Mauch as he heads to the NFL. (Fargo Forum)

Elementary, middle, and high school students in Fargo filled the Fargodome with food donations for the Great Plains Food Bank. (Valley News Live)

In “holy crap” news, a Colgate farmhand survived being trapped in a bin for an hour. (Grand Forks Herald)

Did you watch the Artemis One launch last week?  If so, you marveled at the efforts of the UND and NDSU students who helped make it happen. (KFYR TV)

El Belfour – a former UND player and one of the five winningest goaltenders in NHL history – suited up for a rec game in Grand Forks last week. (Grand Forks Herald)

Here’s a cool photo of some early ice pillars near Tioga. (Facebook)

The monks of Assumption Abbey in Richardton pulled out the sleds for a little snowy fun. (KFYR TV)

Let’s Be (Official) Pals!

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Postcards from the middle | October 13, 2021

Kyle recently came back from a work trip to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“How did it go?” I asked.

“Great!”  He said – and then, forlornly, “But I couldn’t find any postcards.”

Every single time Kyle travels, he sends a postcard.  By “a postcard,” I mean upwards of a dozen of them.  And by “travels,” I mean if his head hits a pillow that is not his own, it counts as a trip – including once in Grand Forks when we booked a hotel room because we were having some work done at the house.

His recipient list varies; it’s usually a handful of family members plus whatever addresses he has in his head at the moment.  He decides how many postcards he’s going to send by how many he buys, and he typically buys eight or so wherever he sees them being sold.  The last time we were in Arizona, for example, he ended up with approximately forty postcards because we went to a park that had as many gift shops as tourist attractions.

He doesn’t write much – “We are in Arizona, and it’s 95 degrees.  This postcard has a cactus on the front because you’re pretty fly for a cacti.” – and he never expects a card in return.  Every once in a while someone will send one back on their own travels, and he will read it several times before hanging it in a place of prominence either by his bedside or in his office.

Kyle’s two biggest postcard fans are named Harrison and Louis, and both are under the age of five.  Kyle once sent Harrison a postcard with a frontiersman on the front, and that little fella was absolutely convinced that said frontiersman was Kyle and carried the card around for a week.  Louis, on the other hand, wants to immediately travel to whatever place the postcard is promoting.

I fell in love with Kyle, in part, because of postcards.  I had just started my current job (I’m a marketing director) and was asked to host a booth at an aviation conference and trade show in Minot.  Instead of the usual promotional items, I decided that I would print up a bunch of postcards with my firm’s logo and pithy taglines (“Making Magic in the Magic City!”) and let people “mail” them via a (very cute) mailbox (that I spent a very long time building).  At the end of the show, I would stamp all of the postcards and send them off to their lucky recipients.

What I failed to consider was that a bunch of North Dakota aviators would have had career opportunity to send postcards from all sorts of exotic and amazing places, and would henceforth be less inclined to communicate their positioning from a town in which they either A) lived or B) could travel to without needing to stop to go to the bathroom.  I mailed one postcard from that conference – to myself, with a note that read, “Amanda: next year, bring sunglasses clips.”

Kyle and I met two months later.  Our first weekend away was up to (exotic and amazing) Winnipeg, where we attended the Festival du Voyageur, ate Thai food, and stopped at a store so Kyle could get some postcards.

“Do you like postcards?” I asked him, wary that he had been secretly one of the attendees at the aviation conference and was low-key teasing me.

“Oh, yes,” he said.  “I always send a postcard to Uncle Buddy.”

Kyle’s paternal great-uncle was a gentleman named Dominic, who everyone called Uncle Buddy.  Uncle Buddy contracted polio as a boy and lived in a care home most of his life.  After she married my father-in-law, my mother-in-law, Jean, took to mailing Uncle Buddy a postcard whenever the family went on a vacation.  Uncle Buddy was pretty much non-verbal, but he liked the postcards so much that he called Jean “Postcard.”  When Kyle moved to the United States, he also started sending Uncle Buddy postcards – tossing a few extra in the mail for his grandpa, parents, and brothers at the same time.

So, I married him.

Fast-forward to now, it turns out you can order postcards on the Internet.  A few days after his return from Pittsburgh, Kyle received a pack of Pennsylvania postcards and immediately turned around and sent them to their intended recipients – putting a little memory of Uncle Buddy and Jean out into the universe once again, too.

If you would like to receive a Kyle postcard, send him a message on Twitter.  His handle is @ICKyleK.  The photo above is of Kyle with some of the postcards he’s received.

This week’s news has whooping cranes, “manure on the court,” and the Northern Lights.  Read on.

Wabek’s – or rather, the town formerly known as Wabek – Hunter Andes is raising money to preserve the ghost town’s school building. (KX Net)

Keep your eyes on the skies this week as migrating whooping cranes make their way across North Dakota. (AP News)

The Prairie Village Museum now has a new Germans from Russia Heritage Center to celebrate North Dakota’s “largest ethic immigrant group.” (KX Net)

The Rotary Club of Wahpeton Breckenridge filled a bus with 8,249 pounds of food for the food pantry (plus over $1,000 in cash) with a whopping 7,000 of those pounds coming from Econofoods. (Wahpeton Daily News)

Grand Forks got quite the light show on Monday night courtesy of a once-in-360-days aurora display. (Grand Forks Herald)

This is a sweet little anecdote – entitled “A little manure on the court won’t stop the farm athlete” – about what it’s like to grow up a farm kid. (Fargo Forum)

North Dakota has seen an 8% increase in racial diversity over the past decade. (Grand Forks Herald)