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March 13: Remembering Agnes Geelan

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On this date in 1993, the Bismarck Tribune reported that Agnes Geelan had died three days earlier in a Fargo nursing home.

Describing her can be like four blind men describing an elephant. One biographer called her “one of North Dakota's grand ladies.” Another called her “debater extraordinary.” Another called her “a North Dakota legend.” The North Dakota Press Women called her a “Woman of Achievement.” Newsweek called her an American hero. Former Governor Art Link said, “Above all she was a good friend.”

For a while, Agnes Geelan was a Republican in name only. She would later boast about it openly. During the 1960s, she worked as a commissioner and later the chairman of the North Dakota Workmen's Compensation Bureau. She published its institutional biography in 1969, which was her first, but definitely not her last, foray into writing books.

Agnes Geelan was an ardent peace activist. In 1988, she advocated for nuclear disarmament at the United Nations. This came after the Reagan administration rebuffed her attempt to sit in on superpower negotiations in Geneva.

She was known for her spunk, which led Newsweek magazine to praise her as an American hero. Agnes Geelan was thrilled. She said, “I'm brazen about this because I want all the publicity I can get toward peace.”

Before running a “petticoat government” as mayor of Enderlin, or her service as North Dakota's first female state senator, or her work to move the Nonpartisan League into the Democratic Party, or her career as an author of books, she had cut her teeth on politics as a wheel in the Ladies Auxiliary Brotherhood Railroad Trainmen, and as president of the North Dakota American Legion Auxiliary.

Before she was the president of the Legion Auxiliary, she chaired its Americanism Committee. She went on a two-week trip to investigate Communist infiltration in Divide County and surrounding counties. As she told it in a 1974 interview, “You couldn't see a green thing. I wondered why we didn't have a rebellion at that time.” She reported back, “If we ever get out of this depression, if good times comes again, that will be the end of the Communist Party in North Dakota.” She added, “And, of course, it was.”

Later in that interview, she remarked, “I would have to say that the people of North Dakota are basically liberal.”

Dakota Datebook by Andrew Alexis Varvel


  • “N.D. Politician-author, 96, dies” (Associated Press article), Bismarck Tribune, 13 March 1993, page 7A, top.
  • The Forum (Fargo), 11 February 1993, page B7, column 3.
  • “Agnes Geelan” in Boyd Christenson, “Boyd Christenson Interviews” (Bismarck: Prairie House, 1983), pages 175-186.
  • “Debater Extraordinary”, in Erling Nicolai Rolfsrud, “Notable North Dakotans” (Alexandria, MN: Echo Printing, 1987), pages 101-105.
  • Lois Trapp, “The Agnes Geelan story – Portrait of affection”, North Dakota REC Magazine, January 1983, pages 27-29.
  • “In 1984 the North Dakota Press Women honored her with their highest award by naming her a 'Woman of Achievement.'”
  • Agnes Geelan, “Pine Cove Revisited” (Fargo: Agnes Geelan, 1984), back cover flap.
  • Andrea Hunter Halgrimson, “As I Recall – Hatton native Agnes Geelan a hero to many”, The Forum (Fargo), 22 May 2011, page C2.
  • Patrick Springer and Ellen Crawford (staff writers), “Geelan pioneering woman in politics”, The Forum (Fargo), 12 March 1993, page B1, columns 2-4.
  • Agnes Geelan had started out in politics as a Democrat. Because her husband's labor union asked her to support William Langer and the Nonpartisan League, she did so. She would eventually run for the Republican nomination for Congress under the Nonpartisan League banner in 1948, along with Usher Burdick. As the Secretary-Treasurer of the NPL, she pushed for the Nonpartisan League to move into the Democratic Party, and eventually succeeded in 1956.
  • North Dakota Oral History Project, Box 1, Cass County, Region 5, Tape #7, Mrs. Agnes Geelan (Bob Carlson interviewer), State Historical Society of North Dakota, Collection Number 10157.
  • Agnes Geelan, “North Dakota Workmen's Compensation Bureau, 1919-1969: Fifty Years of Progress” (Bismarck: State of North Dakota Workmen's Compensation Bureau, 1969), page 37.
  • Agnes Geelan, “The Dakota Maverick: The Political Life of William Langer also known as 'Wild Bill' Langer” (Fargo, Kaye's Printing Company, 1975; funded by Farmers Union of North Dakota and The Oscar and Madge Hawkins Foundation of Minneapolis, Minnesota), 166 pages.
  • Agnes Geelan, “The Ministers' Daughters” (New York: Carlton Press, Inc., 1982, 303 pages.
  • 42:29 to 44:40, in North Dakota Oral History Project, Box 1, Cass County, Region 5, Tape #7, Mrs. Agnes Geelan (Bob Carlson interviewer), State Historical Society of North Dakota, Collection Number 10157.
  • Ibid., 1:28:00.
  • Patrick Springer (staff writer), “Geelan selected as a Newsweek American hero”, The Forum (Fargo),
  • “Woman Mayor”, Bismarck Capital, 6 February 1948, page 1, column 3.
  • “Mrs. Geelan Accustomed To Representing Women”, Bismarck Capital, 9 October 1956, page 8, columns 1-2.
  • “AGNES KJORLIE GEELAN” in Grace Hudson (author) and Jeffrey Anderson (illustrator), “Women of North Dakota Hall of Fame” (Grace Hudson, 1977), pages 21-22.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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