Michael R. Brown 2020 UND Sioux Award Recipient

Michael Brown, ’80, ’82, is well known for his titles of officer, doctor and mayor. From the outside looking in, it took some gumption for the visionary to pursue, and succeed in, three entirely different careers. He attributes his advantageous approach in life to growing up as an “Air Force brat.”

“New house, new friends, new school and new opportunities. I loved it,” Mike said of his childhood spent mainly in England and Japan.

He earned his Bachelor of Science in 1972 and his Master of Arts in 1974 from Baylor University. After graduating, Mike enlisted in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and was stationed at Grand Forks Air Force Base (GFAFB), where he served as ICBM Missile Launch Control Officer, Commander and Instructor from 1975-78. Just one course short of earning his MBA, he enrolled in the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), fulfilling his lifelong dream to become a doctor.

“UND changed my life. The opportunity and the privilege to be in healthcare – it’s quite an honor. I think education is the greatest gift we can give our children.”

After getting his feet wet as a GFAFB Medical Corps OB/GYN, Mike practiced at Altru Health System in Grand Forks where he served as Chairman, Chief and Director of Altru’s OB/GYN Department during his 30-year career. He delivered more than 3,000 babies before retiring in 2019.

The late Dr. Rodney Clark, OB/GYN attending physician for third-year medical students, was Mike’s role model. It was Dr. Clark who taught him to remain calm in the delivery room, a trait Mike later became known for by patients and staff alike.

Mike returned the favor to SMHS and became an attending physician for medical residents. “It keeps you current, it keeps you informed, it keeps you relevant. And they challenge everything you do, so you better be paying attention,” he chuckled.

His leadership style was molded early on as an Eagle Scout, a rank earned in Okinawa, Japan. “That’s where I learned how to follow, then how to lead,” he explained. Known as a bridge builder, Mike’s “sunshine approach” as he says, has empowered those under him and built trust among colleagues and across sectors. He likens it to patient care:

“I think it's important to listen. At the end of an appointment, if you stand there with your hand on the doorknob and ask, ‘Is there anything else?,’ you’re already gone. But if you’re sitting down, your patient feels freer to ask a question. And sometimes, it’d be a very serious question about suicide or depression, so I’m glad I sat back down because now, I can make a difference,” he explained. “You have to recognize the problem, diagnose the problem, and deal with the problem to get the best outcome. And that’s how I approached issues in the city. Evidence-based practice serves you well, no matter whether it’s military or city government or medicine.”

Mike spoke about significant markers on his mayoral portfolio including leading the recovery efforts after the flood of ’97, changes at the GFAFB, city beautification and downtown improvement projects, event centers and facilities as well as responding to the 2008 recession, the opioid crisis, and the recent pandemic.

Mike was elected as the 26th mayor of Grand Forks in 2000 and acted as the city’s longest-serving mayor with consecutive terms through June 2020. Under his leadership, the city saw a growth in population and sales tax revenue triple. He represented the shared best practices on a state and national level and in an appointed seat with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Advisory Board.

Mike’s Boy Scout troop’s motto “keep it simple, make it fun” is what centered his vision on the big picture when the weight of leading a city felt heavy. He played the parts with a smile – competitor in the Friends of the Greenway Chili Cookoff, a willing victim of Relay for Life’s dunk tank and judge for the annual children’s ArtWise Art Show.

As Mayor, Mike placed a strong emphasis on youth programs while personally and professionally investing in the University of North Dakota. In addition to paving the way for research and facility advancement at UND, he laid the groundwork for an internship program at City Hall for university students. As a mentor for UND Honors students, he imparts years of earned wisdom.

“We are training our kids today for jobs that don’t yet exist, you know, so we have to be creative,” said Mike. “I think we need to give our children the tools to adapt to this ever-changing world. Education at UND does that.”

As Mike passed the mayoral baton on June 23, he was quick to give credit to the team of people around him. A similar response followed when asked about his Sioux Award: “I was dumbfounded to learn I was a recipient because it’s quite an honor. I mean, it’s like the highest honor of my professional life, and it’s something I will cherish forever. I think it really validates the work we’ve done. I think life is a team sport and I think we have to win together.”

As for future plans, Mike and his wife, Ann, a former Altru pathologist and 1989 UND SMHS graduate, will be spending more time with their new grandbaby ... and gardening. “I love to grow things – maybe it goes back to OB.”

Applying his “sunshine approach” throughout 10 years of military service, 20 to the city of Grand Forks, and 30 to women and babies in the region, the officer/coach/mayor deserves to catch some rays.

— By Jenn Lukens, UND Alumni Magazine Writer