The memories Terry Severson has of the University of North Dakota go way back. He was 4 years old when his father returned from the Army after World War II and moved his family to Grand Forks to pursue an accounting degree at UND. Terry remembers living in the brand-new Tin Huts while attending a nearby two-room schoolhouse. “Dad left with his degree, and I left with my first-grade report card in 1949.” After several relocations, the oil boom drew the Seversons to Tioga, N.D., which Terry considers home.
Terry returned to UND years later as a student himself and took up many extracurriculars, including freshman and varsity football, Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, Blue Key Honor Society, Student Senate, and UND’s Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC).
“Back in those days, UND being a land grant college, the requirement was that all able-bodied male non-veteran students take two years of ROTC,” Terry said. “So, there were a thousand of us walking around campus wearing green or blue uniforms on drill days.”
That requirement led to a lifelong career as Terry was commissioned a Second Lieutenant from the AFROTC program, simultaneously earning a Bachelor’s of Electrical Engineering, and went on to serve on active duty for 27 years in communications-information assignments in three countries, nine states and the Pentagon. Terry retired in 1992 at the rank of Colonel. Among his successes was the establishment of the initial air-ground data link for Operation Looking Glass, an airborne command and control center devised during the Cold War era. His command in the Philippines was recognized as the best communications unit in the Air Force.
While at Squadron Officer School in Alabama, Terry graduated first in his class of 775 officers. “That’s when the lightbulb went off in my mind that this kid from rural North Dakota can compete with officers from big name institutions. ... I realized I didn’t have to take a back seat to anybody,” he said.
After working for several large and small companies following retirement from the Air Force, he cofounded Trace Systems Inc., in 2006. The Virginia-based telecommunications services and systems company contracts with the U.S. Department of Defense and employs 350 people around the world.
Whether commanding troops or navigating the business world, the challenges have outnumbered the victories in Terry’s career, but he says that’s to be expected. The famous words from Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech have long held a place in Terry’s mind and on his desk. He summarizes: “You are the individual on whom all the responsibility and authority lie. Somehow, you have to set the tone and set the path. It’s not just accepting the congratulations – those are few and far between. Most of the time, it’s solving problems and getting the job done, regardless of the difficulties and criticisms.”
While Terry fulfilled his ambition of seeing the world, visiting North Dakota became a growing priority. His late wife, Diane, encouraged the trips with their two boys and later, the purchase of a townhome in University Village near UND’s campus.
“After bouncing around the world with the Air Force and seeing lots of places and doing a lot of things, my closest associations are from North Dakota. I find those connections the most rewarding,” said Terry.
Over the last decade, he has made it a priority to fly home to attend annual hockey series with former roommates and fraternity brothers, the late Dave Koland, ’64 and Mike Lodoen, ’65 (2018 Sioux Award recipient), and Steve Lodoen, ’67. One of those trips led to a meeting with College of Engineering & Mines (CEM) Dean Hesham El-Rewini, who invited Terry to help establish an Executive Board. Terry holds a place of leadership within CEM – officially as the Executive Board’s chair and unofficially as a sounding board for present and past deans.
Terry credits his father for his commitment to UND: “My dad’s degree was very important to him. He was the only one of the five brothers who completed high school. He made a practice of giving back to the school, and I wasn't completely oblivious to it – I saw it and it made an impression.”
To honor his parents, Terry and Diane established the Harold L. and Io A. Severson Faculty Fellow in Entrepreneurship Endowment which supports collaborative entrepreneurship activities between the Nistler College of Business & Public Administration and the CEM. Additionally, they have contributed to the Collaborative Energy Complex (CEC), established CEM and Football Scholarship Endowments, and Terry named the Terry and Diane Severson Computer Lab in the CEC. Terry is quick to donate toward special initiatives that directly benefit students and has become a catalyst whose gifts motivate others.
A face-to-face meeting connected UND junior Shahmeer Kanwar, ’21, to his scholarship donor, Terry Severson, ’65.
The Sioux Awards are a familiar scene to Terry, who accompanied his parents and later his college roommates to the dinners. But this year, the room will be applauding the man who has used his UND preparation to serve his country and give back to his university.
“I remember being quite impressed by those who received the awards, thinking the recipients had exceptionally high accomplishments, but I never imagined I would be in that same position,” said Terry. “The people to whom this would mean the most are my wife and parents. They had more faith in me than I probably had in myself.”
In addition to a 2020 Sioux Award, Terry was inducted into the CEM Alumni Academy Class of 2013 and was recognized as a 2019 Fighting Sioux Football Legend.
The advice he has for current UND students is this: “You don’t realize how well-prepared you will be. You’ll be able to compete with anyone – if you want to. UND is recognized as a first-class operation, a first-class institution. Be proud, be confident, and work hard at whatever you chose to do.”
— By Jenn Jukens, UND Alumni Magazine Writer