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Friends, colleagues, kin pay respects to Bob Stenehjem; funeral is today

BISMARCK -- About 700 people paid their final respects to Senate Majority Leader Bob Stenehjem at a rare event Sunday in the Capitol.

The funeral visitation in the Senate chamber marked the final time the leader will enter the room he's guided for the past decade.

State officials, lobbyists, constituents, friends and well-wishers from across the state waited in a long line streaming outside the chamber to say good-bye to Stenehjem.

A Highway Patrol officer stood guard at the coffin in the center of the room, while family members stood nearby to hug and thank visitors before they left the chamber.

Stenehjem, 59, was killed last Monday near Soldotna, Alaska, when the vehicle he was driving went off the road and rolled. He was on a family fishing trip when the accident occurred.

Lying in state

Stenehjem lying in state in the Capitol is a rare event in North Dakota history. The Legislative Council could not recall any legislators who have in the past 40 years.

Jim Davis of the State Historical Society of North Dakota said they don't have much information on people besides governors and lieutenant governors who have lain in state in the Capitol.

One notable figure was North Dakota political boss and longtime Republican National Committeeman Alexander McKenzie, who died in 1922.

Known as the "senator-maker," his funeral was in the Senate chamber, Davis said.

Last summer, former Gov. Art Link's visitation was in Memorial Hall in the Capitol. Until then, it had been 20 years since a former governor lay in state in the Capitol.

On Sunday, flags outside the Capitol flew at half-staff and will again today at state agencies. A video showing personal and political photos of Stenehjem -- including some showing his love of the outdoors and fishing -- played in Memorial Hall as visitors arrived.

Mourners' stories

Terry Thunshelle of Bismarck was in the long line of people waiting to pay their respects. He was a constituent of Stenehjem's and helped him with his first campaign in 1992.

"He's been a good representative for us," Thunshelle said. "I'm really going to miss him. He was a good guy."

Sherry Fennell of Mandan was among those who came to support Stenehjem's wife, Kathy, calling her "the sweetest lady you could ever meet."

Former state senator Dan Wogsland, who now lives in Bismarck, said Stenehjem was a "tremendous" friend and senator.

"It's just a sad day for North Dakota," he said.

Jon Martinson of the North Dakota School Boards Association called Stenehjem's death a "tragedy" and said he wanted to say good-bye.

"I just think the world of him," he said. "I miss him very much."

Stenehjem career

Stenehjem, a Republican, was elected to the state Senate in 1992 and became majority leader in 2001. He worked as the city of Bismarck's road and streets foreman.

In his final speech at the end of the 2011 session, Stenehjem said senators were leaving the chamber "with sound public policy that will serve the people of North Dakota well into the future."

"Though political parties often threaten to divide society into an 'us' versus 'them' mentality, this chamber has stood united under the common banner of providing for and improving the lives of all the citizens of North Dakota," he said.

He thanked his fellow senators and hoped the state's residents were proud of the work accomplished on their behalf.

Stenehjem's funeral is at 1 p.m. today on the fourth floor of Bismarck State College's National Energy Center of Excellence. The public is invited to attend.

A reception will follow the funeral, and he will be buried in St. Mary's Cemetery in Bismarck.

In lieu of flowers, the family prefers donations go to the Bismarck State College Foundation in the name of Bob Stenehjem.