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Former Pioneer owner, partner dies

West Fargo Pioneer file photo

A savvy business woman and key player in the success of the West Fargo Pioneer and its subsidiary publications has died.

Printing and publishing entrepreneur Betty Witham, partner and owner of the West Fargo Pioneer, passed away Monday, March 19 in Eventide Senior Living Community in Moorhead at the age of 91.

Betty fell Dec. 30 and suffered a broken hip. She had surgery and had been living in Eventide ever since.

Betty and her husband, Don (Donovan) founded the West Fargo Pioneer on March 15, 1967.

Betty was 47-years old at the time. Both were starting a second chapter in their lives with Don previously spending 20 years in a New York sale-based organization setting up pre-subscribed classical concert series in large and small cities throughout the U.S. Betty accompanied Don on the circuit assisting with social and public relation duties. After their daughter, Kathleen, was born Betty spent more time at home in Barnesville, instead of being on the road all the time.

The pair continued to work as a team at the Pioneer, where Don handled the communication and advertising sales, while Betty was director of all office responsibilities.

They started the business while still living in Windom, Minn., operating there for a short time, while their daughter completed her year of school.

Working as team from the get-go, Don traveled the 240 miles back and forth with the advertising in tow, while Betty took the lead assembling the ads over the weekend for additional production at Barnesville and printing at Wahpeton.

In June, they moved to West Fargo, operating out of a 300-square-foot upstairs office on West Fargo's Main Avenue.

Don hit the streets to convince retailers their products would sell abundantly, while Betty served as director of all in house responsibilities including the composing, mail, and accounting duties, all crammed into a very small space.

Betty was strictly a hands on owner-partner, designing ads and completing paste-up, as well as coordinating editorial and distribution of the finished product. A limited staff was hired, including Edna Knutson immediately and Joyce Newgard shortly thereafter.

With Betty and Don's determination and commitment, the West Fargo Pioneer soon reached the status of stable business and community tradition.

With the stabilization of the Pioneer came the will to branch out into other print areas, with Betty playing a vital role in achieving success in subsidiary endeavors - in particular, the establishment of a weekly shopper in 1970, the Midweek Eagle, with its twin, the Midweek Plus, following a few years later.

The shoppers grew and became twice weekly publications with circulation covering Fargo, Moorhead, West Fargo, Dilworth, and extending widely into Cass and Clay counties. The Midweek Eagle ultimately grew so large that at one time it was the largest circulated free paper in North Dakota.

During the publication process, Betty's forte eventually became creating the grocery ads for Larson's Super Valu, Red Owl, and eventually corporate Super Valu, based in Minneapolis.

In 1992, the Withams also acquired the old Binford's Guide, known as the FM Greeter, continuing to publish it monthly, currently known as the FM Magazine.

In December of 2004, the pair decided to retire, selling their media businesses to Forum Communications.

Joyce Newgard, who had worked with the pair for over 30 years, said Betty was highly influential in the growth of the business empire as well as the direction of the day-to-day operation. "Betty's words went far in some of the decisions that were made and there were some where she attributed great strength. She was just so vital in the success, there is no doubt about it."

Aside from spending countless hours at work during her 35-plus years at the Pioneer, Betty also believed in giving back by attending community events, supporting the various groups and organizations that helped contribute to everyone's livelihood.

She also loved to travel with Don and other family members every opportunity that presented itself including several visits to London and Hawaii; savored quality time doting on her granddaughter, Morgan; and enjoyed a special affection for animals, especially her many cat companions through the years.

She and Don were longtime members of Gethsemane Cathedral where they continued their affiliation to the present.

A complete obituary with service details appears on page 6 of this week's publication.