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Published January 21, 2013, 09:57 PM

Grand Forks Surgeon, Political Leader Ben Clayburgh Dies

Dr. Ben Clayburgh, a longtime Grand Forks orthopedic surgeon and a stalwart leader in the Republican Party who rubbed shoulders with future presidents and ran for the U.S. Senate, died early Monday in Altru Hospital.

By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald

Dr. Ben Clayburgh, a longtime Grand Forks orthopedic surgeon and a stalwart leader in the Republican Party who rubbed shoulders with future presidents and ran for the U.S. Senate, died early Monday in Altru Hospital.

Clayburgh was 88.

He had been living at home until three weeks ago.

Clayburgh was diagnosed in 2006 with progressive cognitive aphasia, which in the past 18 months worsened as dementia, his wife, Bev Clayburgh, said. He was hospitalized Dec. 29 and was due to come home in hospice care Monday.

A leader in professional medical organizations, Clayburgh was more widely known as a state and national leader in the Republican Party for five decades. He and his wife formed one of the political power couples in the state, with their family making it a three-generation deal.

Clayburgh served as state party chairman and as Republican National Committee member at national conventions, developing friendships with George H.W. Bush and his family, and with Ronald Reagan and Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan.

Senate run

In 1994, Clayburgh made his only stab at elected public office, running unsuccessfully against Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.

“Our message is going to be strictly an attack on Conrad with his tax-and-spend philosophy,” Clayburgh said in early 1994 before the state convention. “He has incumbent’s disease. He went straight to Washington from the (state) Tax Department.”

Clayburgh also used his expertise in medicine to make the health care plan of President Bill Clinton an issue in the campaign.

“I have a long career practicing medicine in North Dakota,” he said in January 1994, the year after he served as president of the North Dakota Medical Association. “I love my profession and have tried my best to care for every patient as one of my own family. I do not want quality care to suffer in the hands of Washington politicians. Health care in this country is not sick. Washington is.”

Trained at UND

Clayburgh was born Jan. 31, 1924, in Scobey, Mont., to Marcus and Anna (Horvick) Clayburgh. In the mid-1930s, the family moved to Grand Forks where his father was regional manager for the Allis-Chalmers farm equipment company. Clayburgh graduated from Central High School in 1941.

He began his college studies at UND and enlisted in the Army. After earning bachelor’s degrees from UND, during basic training in Texas, Clayburgh became part of the Army’s drive to “grow their own,” medical personnel, Bev Clayburgh said.

He and a dozen other Army recruits were sent — conveniently for him — to UND to medical school. After his two years at UND’s medical school, Clayburgh completed his medical degree at Temple University in Philadelphia.

In 1950, the military remained short of physicians, and Clayburgh was recalled to serve in the Air Force as a flight surgeon, serving at Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City, S.D., as well as in London.

He returned to do residencies in St. Paul and in Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. He joined the Grand Forks Clinic in 1956. In 1966, he and Dr. John McLeod formed The Orthopaedic Clinic in Grand Forks.

After his first wife, Mina, died in 1968, Clayburgh, with four young boys, married Bev in 1970. She was a Fargo businesswoman who had been widowed, too, and had two daughters.

Political family

Together they formed one of the political power families in North Dakota Republican circles.

Two of his sons became physicians, a third became a dentist and the fourth went into law and politics and now is a banker in Bismarck.

Rick Clayburgh was a state legislator from Grand Forks from 1988 to 1996, when he became state tax commissioner. In 2002 he ran against incumbent Democrat Rep. Earl Pomeroy.

During the 1996 Republican National Convention, an Associated Press reporter did a feature on the Clayburghs’ three generations on the floor. Beverly was a delegate, Ben and Vicki, one of Bev’s daughters, were alternates. Vicki’s son, Matt Fredrikson, was an aide to the state delegation.

Dr. Clayburgh’s first Republican national convention was 1964, when Sen. Barry Goldwater was nominated to run against President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Clayburgh worked hard for Ronald Reagan before and during his 1980 campaign for the presidency, including escorting him around North Dakota.

Clayburgh was state Republican National Committee member at the same time George H.W. Bush held the same position in the Texas GOP, and they became friends. Bush later came to Fargo to campaign for Clayburgh in 1994.

Clayburgh retired as a surgeon in 1993. After losing the 1994 Senate race, he organized a company named Independent Evaluations, Inc., and ran it for about five years.

Global connections

He continued to devote time to arranging medical education student exchanges between UND and universities in Norway. He and Bev visited Norway many times, including his family’s ancestral farm near Stavanger, she said.

His grandmother, Petra Kleiberg, a Norwegian immigrant who had studied medicine in Oslo, Norway, but wasn’t able to earn a medical degree, nevertheless worked as a pioneer physician in the Roseau, Minn., area in the 19th century, Bev Clayburgh said.

Clayburgh’s father, Marcus, whose generation “Americanized” the spelling of Kleiberg, recalled watching his mother amputate limbs under rude conditions in their home.

Dr. Clayburgh was active in state and national medical organizations and spent time teaching surgery in Africa and China with the World Health Organization. He also delighted in raising funds for UND’s Pride of the North marching band.

His survivors include his wife, Bev; sons Dr. James (Nancy) Clayburgh, Portsmouth, N.H.; Dr. Robert (Sally), Grand Forks; Dr. John Clayburgh, Grand Forks; and Rick (Nancy) Clayburgh, Bismarck; stepdaughters, Vicki Fredrikson and Susan Peterson, both of Fargo; 12 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

A prayer service will be at 7 p.m. Friday in Amundson Funeral Home, preceded by two hours of visitation. His funeral service will be at 11 a.m. Saturday downtown in United Lutheran Church, 324 Chestnut St., where he was confirmed in the 1930s.