Dave Hengel, Executive Director of Greater Bemidji

August, 2023

This week, we bid farewell to a true steward of the Bemidji community. Jim Bensen will be moving to Wisconsin to be closer to family. He will forever be remembered for his love of Bemidji and the positive difference he has made here. As a proud Bemidji State alumni, Jim came back to Bemidji in 1994 as the University’s 8th President. During his Presidency, he brought pride to Bemidji State, and opened the doors of the University to our region. He fully understood the responsibility the University had in supporting its community.


You see, Jim recognized the reciprocal relationship the University and community have, and how the destiny of both Bemidji State and the Bemidji community were intrinsically tied. It was natural to Jim to work to build both up together. Of course, those who know Jim also know him as Bemidji’s greatest cheerleader. He quickly shares an elevator speech extolling the great things about our community to anyone who will listen, a litany that no doubt exceeds anything we can produce at Greater Bemidji. His enthusiasm and excitement for Bemidji is genuine. But to simply honor Jim as a great University President or as our community’s great ‘encourager’ really doesn’t do justice to Jim Bensen.


To me, Jim was a personal mentor and a Bemidji legend. Jim is like no community leader I have ever met in my 35 plus years of working in community and economic development. Jim is the epitome of a community steward. Using the definition of community steward from the Alliance for Regional Stewardship, Jim is more than a leader…he is a special leader committed to the  long-term well-being of our community. He crosses boundaries, takes an integrated approach, and builds coalitions for action. He has a 360-degree vision.  Jim operates at the center of tough issues, not on the edges. He is a risk-taker and is passionate and energetic.  He is a person of vision.” That’s the Jim Bensen I know and admire.


Jim and I became close friends in the mid-2000s. He chaired Bemidji Leads and I served as lead staff to him – taking the ideas the community generated and running with them. As has been his effect on other young leaders, I found myself emulating Jim’s leadership style, and fully embracing some of his core beliefs. Here are a few examples:

  • Culture eats strategy for lunch everyday – You can have the greatest strategy to grow and prosper, but if you don’t have the right people on the bus, have trust among the team and
    have a shared values, great strategy simply doesn’t matter;
  • A community’s collective effort is almost limitless – When the entire community aligns behind a common goal so much more can be accomplished that most believe is impossible.
    Community’s that find a way to not just align behind a common goal or project, but rather align behind a common strategy – those are the communities that have found the pot of
  • The importance of claiming our community’s future – Setting a clear placeholder on who we choose to be as a community in 10 or 20 years is so critical. Jim has always used President Kennedy’s vision of landing on the moon and return safely within a decade to illustrate the power of vision. The President’s declaration galvanized a nation. There is something empowering and energizing about staking your claim on your own community’s future; and,


Finally, that you plan from the future, not to it – Really it’s simple – You don’t make a plan for the future. You set your target (claiming your future as described above) and developing a plan or strategy to get there. In that order.


These are very profound ideas that Jim made simple for folks like me to understand. It’s one of the geniuses of Jim Bensen. If you have spent more than five minutes with Jim, you have heard these truisms (often more than once). Jim Bensen’s most important lessons to me, however, were not shared in what he said, but how he lives. Jim is happy, positive, and lives a life of joy. He has a genuine zeal for life and what each day might bring him. He knows in his heart that there will be troubles in life – whether we are talking about our personal lives or our community life – but to Jim they will never outshine the blessings of each day.


He loves people, believes in everyone’s intrinsic value, and wants to support each and every one he meets. Every day at Greater Bemidji…at some point in the morning…Jim Bensen stops in to brighten our day and encourage us. He doesn’t do that for himself. He takes the time because he cares about us and wants to support us. I know Greater Bemidji isn’t the only place Jim pops in on daily.


The trait that distinguishes Jim from other leaders, and the one I would argue draws people to him, is his authenticity. He genuinely is who he is. The passion, joy, zeal, positivity – it is all deeply engrained in his being. Jim lives his personal values every day of his life. While I have focused on Jim, those who know Nancy Bensen know she too is a true blessing to the Bemidji community and will leave a deep void. Nancy once told me she is responsible for any success or impact Jim has had. I don’t doubt it. Thanks for your work in our community and for supporting Jim in his leadership efforts.


As I close, let me leave a personal message to Jim:

Jim – As you take your leave of our community, please don’t doubt you are leaving a legacy here – a legacy that will continue to be lived out by all of us who you’ve inspired. You have modeled for our community what it means to be a “community steward”: to care for each other, work together as one community and never doubt what you can accomplish TOGETHER.


On behalf of our community, I say THANK YOU. You are no doubt a Bemidji legend, and I am proud to call you my friend and mentor. There will never be another one like you. God speed my friend.


Dave Hengel

Contact me at (218) 444-5757 or dhengel@greaterbemidji.com.

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