Reiten built legacy in Minot

Chester Reiten, 89, the founder of Norsk Hostfest and longtime civic leader, died Tuesday in a Minot assisted-living center.

“He did a tremendous amount for the state, but particularly for Minot, and he truly loved Minot and the region,” Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said Wednesday. “He was always looking at what’s next for Minot, what’s next for North Dakota.”

As governor, Hoeven, a Minot native, had presided over Reiten’s induction into the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Hall of Fame, the state’s highest honor. Hoeven later presented Reiten for induction into the Scandinavian American Hall of Fame, a recognition that Reiten finally consented to after years of promoting others for the honor.

“He was one of those guys who was bigger than life,” Hoeven said. “I think leadership is positive, and he was positive. There was a positive belief that he exuded that made people believe we could do something together.”

“Chet was an incredible asset to the state,” Gov. Jack Dalrymple said in a prepared statement. “He has left a lasting legacy of service and dedication to Minot, to the state as a whole and to North Dakota’s rich Scandinavian heritage.”

Reiten served in the Navy during World War II. He went on to become a pioneer in broadcasting in North Dakota. Starting with the purchase of KXMC-TV of Minot in 1959, Reiten’s Reiten Broadcasting Co. grew to include television stations in Bismarck, Williston and Dickinson as well as radio stations.

In the community, Reiten served in many capacities, from chairing the Chamber of Commerce to heading the Trinity Medical Center board.

As mayor from 1970 to 1982 and again from 1984 to 1986, Reiten saw Minot through flood fights and construction of a Souris River flood protection system, an effort that spanned nearly 30 years and cost $250 million in federal, state and local tax dollars and in Canadian dollars. It entailed lengthy and complex negotiations with government officials at every level, both in the U.S. and in Canada. It resulted in the construction of two dams in Canada, the restructuring of Lake Darling Dam in North Dakota, river channel improvements and the building of permanent dikes in Minot.

Bob Schempp, a former city manager and city finance director, said Reiten was the right person to lead the flood fights.

“He sort of filled the room with his presence and with his ability to communicate with the people of Minot,” he said, noting that Reiten’s communication skills later were invaluable in working with state and Canadian officials on flood protection.

Reiten also signed the original agreement through the Garrison Diversion project that led to the Northwest Area Water Supply project. He was instrumental in the creation of Minot Area Development Corp. and construction of the All Seasons Arena.

“He laid the foundation for a lot of the progress we are making right now,” Schempp said.

Overlapping his time as mayor, Reiten represented Minot in the North Dakota Senate from 1973 to 1988, serving as Senate pro tempore in 1985.

Sen. David O’Connell, D-Lansford, recalled, as a new senator, having sought advice from his more experienced Republican colleague.

“He wielded a lot of power but he did it in a gentleman’s fashion,” O’Connell said. “He knew exactly what he wanted and he knew how to go after it.”

The trio of Reiten and former representatives Jim Peterson and Brynhild Haugland of Minot gave Minot clout in the Legislature, and the region still holds it own because of the foundation they laid, he said.

O’Connell added that Reiten had a particular ability as a senator to relate to young people, using his stature in a positive way to earn their admiration.

Reiten was mayor of Minot when Carrol Juven of Fargo, regional manager for Sons of Norway, came around and signed him up with the organization. That meeting led to a 40-year friendship and several trips to Norway together through his tour operation.

“I have great admiration and respect for him more than for a father. He was a wonderful man,” Juven said. “I always found him to be kind, considerate and a man of integrity a true leader.”

When Reiten sought his advice about starting Hostfest, Juven never thought that the festival would develop into a major national event although he says now that he should have known.

“Because he was one whale of a leader. He studied through everything very carefully and made it happen,” he said. “He got people with him and had the support of the people.”

He remembers Reiten sitting back with his feet up on his desk and saying, “Now tell me, how would this work.” Once sold on a plan, he’d lean across the desk and exclaim, “Let’s do it.”

Juven said he saw the respect for Reiten in watching him interact with Hostfest dignitaries and in observing the reception that Reiten received from Hostfest crowds.

Reiten was awarded the St. Olav Medal, the highest honor given by the King of Norway to a foreigner. Reiten’s character was evident when he turned to the audience to give them the credit and thanks, he said.

Chester Reiten, in an interview with The Minot Daily News in 1992, is reported to have said in his trademark loud, clipped, Norwegian-accented voice: “Now if you write I did something, make sure you say in there that I did it with the help of a lot of other people. … To say that I did it all myself, that isn’t true. You have to have others to help you do things.”

One of Reiten’s greatest gifts was his ability to pick the right people for the job, said Pam Davy, Hosfest executive director.

“He inspired them to think out of the box and to do their best. To a large part, that was responsible for the success of the festival. He was the catalyst for it all,” she said. “He was a big man with a bigger personality. We could hear him coming before the doors opened. He had so much energy and he was so full of excitement, and he loved Hostfest from the moment it was conceived.”

Norsk Hostfest fielded numerous calls Thursday from people around the state and across the ocean who expressed their sorrow at Reiten’s death.

Hostfest entertainer Bjoro Haaland and his wife, Liv, of Kristiansand, Norway, said they enjoyed a precious time with Chester and his wife, Joy, at Hostfest every year since they began coming in 1982.

“Bjoro always loved his powerful speeches, the way he expressed himself. He taught us how important (it is) to take care of heritage,” Liv Haaland said. “Chester was such an honest, outspoken, strong man who loved and lived for his family and for Minot.

“We always felt like family,” she added. “It will be different to return to Minot in October knowing that Chester will no longer be among us.”

Those who knew Reiten said even more important to him than his city and state were his wife and family.

One of his sons, David, said that as much as his father worked to bring success out of whatever he wrapped his arms around, faith and family came first.

“He used his faith and the things that he was brought up with to help make whatever he touched better,” David Reiten said.