First lady’s visit thrills students, residents in ND

Janell Cole, The Forum
Published Friday, October 03, 2008

State Capitol Bureau

BISMARCK – First lady Laura Bush told North Dakotans, “Truly I saved the best for last,” and that was enough to thrill the congregation of a little country church and people of all ages at Bismarck’s smallest and perhaps poorest school.

Thursday was the first lady’s first trip to North Dakota, the last state she has visited.
She used the visit to connect to state residents involved in two of her personal interests – historic preservation and a national school art program.

Mother Nature rolled out the red carpet, showing the first lady the most perfect day possible in a North Dakota October – cloudless blue skies, no wind, temperatures in the 70s and the leaves just starting to turn gold.

Janelle Cole / N.D. State Capitol Bureau.     Carole Olin of Sims, N.D., was the lucky member of the Sims Evangelical Lutheran Church whom Laura Bush, right, sat down with during the church potluck Thursday. Next to Olin is Rodney Nelson. Bush is listening to the church's pastor tell some of the history of the congregation.

Bush landed at the Bismarck Airport about 11:15 a.m. After being greeted by North Dakota first lady Mikey Hoeven, the first-grade class of Bismarck’s Cathedral School and the Bismarck High School marching band, her motorcade hit the road to Sims Evangelical Lutheran Church, which is all that’s left of the once-thriving pioneer town of Sims.

The church’s 1884 parsonage – also used as the church until about 1900 – was restored a few years ago with a grant from the national Save America’s Treasures program, of which the first lady is honorary chairwoman.

She got a tour of the parsonage and a brief history of Sims from Joel and Donna Johnson of Sims, who were instrumental in the restoration project. Bush then saw the inside of the carefully maintained and still-thriving 1900 church before joining the 35-member congregation and members of Preservation North Dakota for a classic Lutheran church basement potluck.

“We thought it was just the greatest,” Donna Johnson said after Bush left. “And we couldn’t believe it after it was over. She was about the most gracious person.”
In Bismarck later, the first lady visited a classroom at Riverside Elementary School. She and teacher Susan Weekes discussed with students large reproductions of two historic American art images – a George Catlin painting of the Mandan Indians in North Dakota in the 1830s, and Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 oil painting “George Washington Crossing the Delaware.”

During remarks to an assembly for Riverside’s 150 students, local politicians, teachers and parents who gathered in the school gym, she said the large artwork reproductions at their school came from the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Picturing America project, a program the president and first lady announced in February.

Then her parting words to North Dakotans, “Thank you all very much and may God bless you,” and she was soon back on the 737 jet emblazoned “United States of America,” flying away, having checked off state No. 50 on her life list.

Cole works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. She can be reached at (701) 224-0830 or