Kenneth Russel "Russ" Bjorhus was one of the best friends Minnesota farmers had. And the best grandfather six boys could wish for.
Bjorhus, a longtime Litchfield resident, died Nov. 7 in Monticello at age 93. He worked as a University of Minnesota county extension agent for more than 20 years and was later appointed Minnesota state director of the federal Farmers Home Administration (FmHA), leading that agency for more than a decade and steering it through the farm crisis of the 1980s, the nation's worst agricultural downturn since the Great Depression.
Born in Driscoll, N.D., Bjorhus grew up in a farming family in North Dakota and in Ulen, Minn., where he graduated from high school.
"It was a dairy farm, so he had to milk cows before school," said his daughter, Lori Johnson of Kimball, Minn. "He had to walk to the country school and help the teacher get the wood stove going."
Despite his small stature, he competed enthusiastically in sports, something his hard-working Norwegian farmer father didn't approve of. Because of that, Bjorhus often had to walk the four miles home after practice.
After graduation, he joined the U.S. Air Force and served as an armament crew chief in Iceland, where he made enough money playing poker to buy a new Chevrolet. On one visit home to Ulen, the uniformed airman ran into Marjorie Forsythe and asked her out.
"We went to Moorhead and had dinner," she said. "And from then on we were together." The couple were married for 66 years.
After graduating from the U, Bjorhus began a long career as a county extension agent. Characteristically, he threw himself into the job with enthusiasm, writing newspaper columns, organizing education programs and running the local 4-H.
Always interested in politics, he decided to run for Congress in 1978, losing a spirited race against the incumbent representative, Rick Nolan. But his candidacy drew attention in Washington, D.C., leading to his appointment with FmHA.
"It was a really tough time for agriculture," said his daughter, Kari Bjorhus of Sandy Springs, Ga. "There was a lot of political stuff going on at that time — demonstrations and lots of farmers who were angry." Marjorie Bjorhus recalled coming home one day to find a threatening note on their door.
In retirement, Bjorhus devoted himself to fixing up the family cabin, where he put his farm-honed handyman skills to work around the place. Confident and a quick study, he was always willing to try something new, Kari said.
"The thing about my dad that really defines him as being different from other people is that he just had an enormous enthusiasm for life," she said. "He was always excited about things that were going on. He had a boyish enthusiasm for life."
That quality shone with his six grandsons. He delighted in spending time with them, building them a treehouse and teaching them how to make birdhouses. He created a pirate treasure hunt, filling a box with cheap jewelry and burying it at the cabin, then making a treasure map complete with ketchup stains that looked like blood.
An avid reader, Bjorhus also loved music, his daughter Lori said.
"He had a song called 'Hallelujah, I'm a Bum.' He would sing that," she said. "But he wasn't a very good singer," she added with a laugh.
"He was just such a warm, special person," Marjorie Bjorhus said. "He was different."
Bjorhus is also survived by daughter Jennifer Bjorhus of St. Paul and four great-grandchildren. Services have been held.