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West Fargo's leading lady leaves lasting legacy

Florenz Bjornson, former Mayor of West Fargo, waves during a parade. She died Jan. 19, in Willmar, Minn.

Florenz Bjornson respectfully and affectionately referred to as "West Fargo's grandest dame," passed away at the age of 93 on Wednesday, Jan. 19, in Willmar, Minn., in the same manner she enjoyed life, surrounded by the warmth of her loving family.

An almost 70-year resident of West Fargo, family, friends and professional colleagues turned out in full force Monday to help celebrate and honor Florenz's long and illustrious life, gathering at Community Presbyterian Church, where she was a longtime member.

Ask Florenz and she would quickly tell you that family was the driving force and mainstay in her life.

In an interview conducted a few years ago she reflected on that importance, stating, "My kids, oh my gosh, yes, they are the most important thing. I have a wonderful relationship with my children and I have been turning to them a lot lately." Family includes daughters: Jeraldine Bjornson and her three children, Sean, Stefen, and Cara; Sidney Kay Leach and her children Shannon and John Thomas; and sons, Scott; and John, and his wife, Mary, and their daughter, Kacy Rea.

Florenz had continued to call West Fargo her home until August of last year, when her health started to fail and she finally realized it was time to relocate to the Copperleaf Senior Living Community in Willmar in order to be closer to her son, John, and his family.

Florenz had been doing very well residing in Willmar, until suffering a stroke last week causing her to be admitted to the hospital where she passed away. "The whole family was by her side and it was just wonderful," John said. "A Presbyterian chaplain attended to her and it was fabulous."

John noted that up until the end, Florenz was the same, feisty gracious person she had always been. "I know she loved West Fargo and she also loved being in Willmar with her family. She had all her stuff and mementos and we would sit around and talk about it (the West Fargo memories) all the time. But she was content with where she was and would say "this is the right place for me now John. She always put family first and she continued to do that right to the end."

When asked what his mom would want to be remembered for, John's response was quick and to the point. "She had a pretty successful life helping people and I think she'd like to be remembered for her community service and her devotion to her family that she displayed all the time."

Florenz was indeed known for her spunkiness, which always translated into her ability to get the job done. Growing up during the depression in Aberdeen, S.D., she quickly developed a mind of her own and learned to be outspoken about issues she felt strongly passionate about.

After graduating from high school, Florenz moved to Fargo and attended NDSU, graduating in 1939 with a bachelor of science in bacteriology. During this time, she met Sidney Bjornson. They married in 1940 and shortly thereafter Sid was called to active duty in World War II, assigned to Iceland.

During his absence, she was employed by the Fargo Forum as editor of their military section, continuing in that position until his discharge when Sid joined his father's practice at the Union Stockyards and later became an inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Florenz became a stay-at-home mom raising their family and living for several years on Second Avenue and then on Sixth Street West, before Sid passed away unexpectedly.

Independent woman that she was and with her children all grown, Florenz immersed herself in civic life as a member of various boards and organizations; mixing traveling in whenever she could.

Through the years, Florenz served on the West Fargo School Board, as Mayor of West Fargo, in the State House of Representatives, on the State Water Commission, on the West Fargo Public Library Board, and as an active member of Amita Club.

She first joined the School Board in 1965, where she was highly involved, serving as chair several times. Her interest focused on developing the curriculum and financing for the School District. After serving four three-year terms she retired from the Board in 1977.

At the age of 70 she assumed duties as West Fargo's first and only woman Mayor in 1986, after Clayton Lodoen stepped down. She served two four-year terms before retiring from the position in 1994. One of the high points of this tenure was the realization and dedication of the Sheyenne Diversion flood protection for the community, which Florenz described as one of the biggest happenings to positively affect West Fargo. It was also during this service that the neighboring community of Riverside merged with West Fargo.

She loved serving as mayor at the time describing it "very, very gratifying."

Her resolve, commitment and tenacity earned her numerous accolades including plaques that for many years hung on her office wall in her home, including those signed by both North Dakota Governors John Hoeven and Ed Schafer for her work in the Legislature and with the State Water Commission; the West Fargo Exchange Club Book of Golden Deeds Award; and the West Fargo Chamber of Commerce 2005 Civic Excellence Award Winner.

Through the years, she was also loved playing bridge; and watching the Timberwolves, Minnesota Vikings and the NDSU Bison football games, as a regular season ticket holder to the ladder.

During her lifetime, Florenz managed to touch and positively impact the lives of many more than she possibly even knew, leaving behind a legion of devoted colleagues and way too many 'best friends' to possibly count.

Several share "in their own words" the privilege of being able to call the "petite lady with the big voice" a friend and colleague, saying they are inspired by the long, lasting and endearing legacy she will be leaving behind for the historical enrichment of present and future generations to come.

Ardith Hoehn - longtime friend

"As longtime West Fargo residents, we have also been longtime friends. I first met Florenz when my daughter who is now 50 was in third grade, and she was taking her little boy to school. We were also in women's club together here in West Fargo, and were bridge partners for many, many years. We belonged to so many organizations together - the symphony, library groups, Amita Club, I told her son John when he called me about her passing. 'Anyone who has had her as a friend, it's a gift so wonderful, I can't even say how much it means.' She was always there and willing to help and just a beautiful sincere intelligent, sympathetic lady interested in not only community things but also statewide and nationally, she was involved in all of it. She is a lady that I'm proud to remember as having been a very, very dear friend. She was an immaculate lady, and I that I am stronger lady and more blessed for having known her. She was almost like a big sister, and this person you could always count on, and she was a good cook. We always had a lot of fun and lots of laughs and a lot of happy moments."

Carol Spichke - former WF City Commissioner who served on board when Florenz was mayor

"My last year of my second term in office she was mayor and one of first people I knew in WF. I knew from her past history just remarkably gifted she was and about the leadership roles she assumed in college. With Florenz you just knew that the job was going to get done. She was so smart. I was always so in awe of her I barely dared to open my mouth. As for the Sheyenne Diversion, they told me that when they went to Washington to get diversion in place, between her and Dick Twichell, they got the job done. I can't think of anyone I admire more than Florenz. She was awesome. I wish I could have been more like her."

Alon Wieland - friend and District 13 Representative

"Florenz Bjornson was a great public servant. She served on many boards and in so many capacities to benefit the people of West Fargo, and the state of North Dakota, and she always had the ability to get it right. She always placed the people of West Fargo first in her service. Sadly, she had not been able to continue her service in years, but the community owes her a lot for a series of jobs well done."

Judy Lee - friend and District 13 Senator

"Florenz Bjornson recognized the need for citizens to be involved in order to make changes and improvements in the world around us. She started as an NDSU student as part of the Committee of 11 whose objections to what was happening with the Governor's control of higher education led to making higher education an independent entity in ND. She continued throughout her life, most notably as a member of the House of Representatives, mayor of West Fargo, and member of the ND Water Commission. Every conversation with this gracious lady showed her continued interest in what was happening, and we should be very grateful for the work she did and the example that she set for all of us to participate in public service. I miss her already!"

Sharon Schacher - longtime friend who served as deputy auditor during Florenz' mayoral tenure

"I remember Florenz as a very 'classy dame.' She was always impeccably dressed and had a great love of community and also had a great sense of humor. At Clayton Lodoen's retirement party, in her petite frame she marched up to the front to speak wearing a huge overshoe and said 'I have some very big shoes to fill, but I will do my best.' All of us at City Hall worked very closely with Florenz for the two terms she was in office because she came in nearly every day and for a good part of the day. It is not unusual to become almost like family to the mayor's because that office is located in our building and we do touch base with them on many different aspects. Florenz was unique in that she always took the time to ask us about our families and always had a way of showing us how much she appreciated us. Even at 70 years of age when she became mayor, she continually wanted to learn. Many times she would come to me with a budget and say 'I know I asked you this before, but would you tell me again?' She was a very intelligent lady, had served on so many boards and commissions and yet it didn't ever bother her to ask a question."

(A complete obituary also appears on page 7 of today's publication)