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Thomas Disselhorst

Thomas Disselhorst

Thomas M. Disselhorst, 71, Bismarck, died unexpectedly Dec. 30, 2018, from injuries sustained in a car accident near Richardton.

A memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 20, at United Tribes Technical College, 3315 University Dr., Bismarck, at the James Henry Gymnasium. In lieu of flowers, please consider making donations to United Tribes Technical College Student Scholarship Fund ATTN: College Relations, 3215 University Dr., Bismarck, ND 58504. Go to the following link:

Tom was born in Seattle on Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7, 1947. He grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and moved to Solana Beach, Calif., in 1959. After graduating from San Dieguito High School in Encinitas, Calif., Tom attended the University of California in San Diego (UCSD). He studied abroad for a year in what was then West Germany and graduated in 1971 with a degree in chemistry. In 1975, he obtained a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley, Law School. After law school, he joined the Vista Corps (now called Americorps Vista) and chose to come to North Dakota because it was near his Zeller family roots. He was assigned to Fort Yates to provide legal counsel on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. He met Arlene Andre of Bismarck, who was like-minded and active in politics. They were married May 25, 1980. These experiences set the stage for the rest of his life calling.

Tom was brought on as a staff attorney for United Tribes Technical College in 1980. For 39 years he worked in various roles including legislative advocacy, administration, contracts, and policies. Over the years he lobbied tirelessly to secure funding for the college, often providing input and excellent written testimony to the U.S. Congress.

Not only was Tom full-time counsel in the legal department, he also was adjunct faculty and taught hundreds of students over the years. As a teacher, Tom knew his students needed to walk in both the Indian and non-Indian world. He passionately taught courses in business law and federal tribal law so students could have the knowledge and skills necessary to help them navigate their future. Throughout his career, he maintained a private law practice representing many students and others with various legal issues, arguing before tribal courts as well as in civil and criminal courts.

Over the years, Tom provided legal counsel to the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, and the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara), as well as others. He worked on numerous issues important to many American Indian tribes across America, including the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988. He then helped negotiate tribal/state gaming compacts which led to the development of the Four Bears Casino owned by the Three Affiliated Tribes near New Town. Today, this tribal enterprise is thriving, providing a much-needed economic boost for the tribes. The majority of the jobs at the casino are held by tribal members which provides them with a steady income and full benefits. He also worked to secure federal funding for the Four Bears Bridge crossing the Missouri River at New Town. The bridge, which opened in 2005, replaced an old rickety one.

He was a founder and board member of the North Dakota Peace Coalition, a member of the North Dakota Martin Luther King Holiday Commission, the North Dakota Progressive Coalition, and a recipient of the annual Prairie Peacemaker Award given by the Peace Coalition.

Tom loved to play piano, always learning new pieces and eager to play for anyone who would listen. He played for the Bismarck-Mandan Unitarian Universalist Congregation services for many years. He also loved to act, and participated in the local community theatre, Dakota Stage. Tom never shied away from a good political debate. Those who knew him describe him as a gentleman, kind, big-hearted, and extremely generous with his time and money. He was civil, ethical, a good listener, cheerful, having an excellent sense of humor, and a passionate advocate of Native American causes. He will be deeply missed by his family, many friends, and all who knew him.

Tom is survived by his brother Barry Disselhorst (Tania), Moorpark, Calif.; his sister, Suellen Spencer (Christopher), New Orleans; his sister, Lori Wolf (Tom), Cardiff, Calif.; his sister, Cindy Bashford (Gregg), Truckee, Calif.; his sister, Linda Seymour, Oceanside, Calif.; several nieces, nephews and cousins. Tom was preceded in death by his wife of 34 years, Arlene Andre; his parents, Eleanor Gertrude Disselhorst (neé Zeller from Elgin) and Asa Milton Seymour, as well as his stepfather Byron Disselhorst, whom he called “Dad.”

Go to to share memories of Tom and sign the online guest book. (Eastgate/Parkway Funeral Service, Bismarck)

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