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Olger Burton Burtness


Olger Burton Burtness, a North Dakota legislator and District Court Judge, passed away on this date in 1960. Burtness left a legacy of both theatre and law at his alma mater and across the state.

Born in 1884 in Grand Forks County of Norwegian immigrants, Burtness never strayed far from his family farm near Mekinock. After graduating from school, Burtness attended the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. Active in debate, theater, and football during his college years, he also served as editor of the university’s yearbook, the Dacotah, and was a member of the Mimer Society, a Scandinavian literature group. In 1902, the university put on one of its first theater productions, All For a Man. Influenced by the production, Burtness began participating in class plays. In 1906, Burtness graduated, but remained at the University to pursue a law degree, which he earned the following year. After passing the bar, he established a practice in Grand Forks, and in 1911, he became the prosecuting attorney of Grand Forks County. In 1909, Burtness married Zoe Ensign in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. The couple shared a passion for theatre, and when UND founded the Sock and Buskin theatre society the following year, both Burtnesses became active with the group. In 1917, it became the Dakota Playmakers; and Burtness served as the group’s treasurer for a time.

In 1916, Burtness began a career in politics, first as a delegate to the Republican National Convention, and later as a member of the North Dakota State House of Representatives. From 1921 until 1933, Burtness served as a U.S. Congressman in the House of Representatives. Always a Scandinavian, Burtness was presented with the Order of the Falcon by the King of Denmark in 1930. He was also sent by the President to represent the country at the centennial of the Icelandic parliament. In 1950, North Dakota Governor Fred Aandahl appointed him as District Judge of the First Judicial District of North Dakota.

Burtness served the state until his death in 1960. At that time, his wife Zoe donated $100,000, the equivalent of nearly $700,000 today, to UND in order to build the Burtness Theatre in her husband’s memory. Today, the theater remains the permanent home of UND’s performing arts department, hosting dozens of productions every year.

Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job







Liepold, Loren J. 2008 “Theatre History at the University of North Dakota” University of North Dakota: 1883-2008, Celebrating 125 Years. University of North Dakota: Grand Forks.