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North Dakotans who worked for former Gov. George Sinner said he always put the state first.

“I learned early from him how strongly he felt about doing the right thing for the people of North Dakota," said Richard Gross of Bismarck, who served as Sinner’s legal counsel during both terms.

Sinner, North Dakota’s 29th governor who served from 1985 to 1992, died Friday at age 89. He was the most recent Democrat to hold the office.

A funeral Mass is scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday at Nativity Catholic Church in Fargo. A prayer service and visitation will be from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday, also at the church. Boulger Funeral Home in Fargo is handling arrangements.

Lloyd Omdahl, who served as Sinner’s lieutenant governor from 1987 to 1992, called him “the most warm, personable governor in the United States” who had the qualities of a priest.

“He was in seminary for two years, and then he decided that was not for him and went and had 10 kids — he was Catholic — and so I always thought of him as a priest with 10 kids, because he never quit being a priest. He was always kind and friendly, like a priest,” Omdahl said.

George B. Sinner told the Associated Press his father never talked about money and was always focused on helping others.

"My dad picked up hitchhikers. He cared about immigrants. When I was a child, he brought a young man home from one of the local colleges who was a visiting student from Africa for Christmas," his son said. "That's who he was and how he lived."

Gross said he began admiring Sinner in the early 1980s while Gross was working in the state tax department and later helped during his campaign for governor.

“I came to regard him as my second father,” Gross said. “I considered him a Renaissance man, he knew so much about so many things.”

Gross said he and Sinner rarely had disagreements over policy, and all of Sinner’s decisions were rooted in what was best for the people of North Dakota.

“He was a wonderful man to work for,” he said. “I’m going to miss him a lot.”

Jim Fuglie, former executive director of the state Democratic-NPL Party who served as state tourism director while Sinner was governor, remembered Sinner for being “absolutely fearless” when it came to upholding his convictions.

“The defining moment of his governorship was his veto of what would have been the strictest anti-abortion bill in America, saying ‘Government must not play God,’” Fuglie recalled. “He was a Catholic, once studied to be a priest and was personally against abortion, but he thought the bill was government overstepping its bounds.”

Sinner discussed his veto in a 2010 oral history interview with the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

“I’ve never believed abortion was a good thing — it wasn’t that at all — but when you get into the area of public policy, you have to be scrupulously careful to not ever give credence to the idea that the state can impose church opinions, even when they are the opinions of the majority,” Sinner said in the interview.

Gov. Doug Burgum said in a statement that North Dakota lost a great leader who was a “true champion for farmers and our rural way of life.”

“Gov. Sinner led our state through one of its most difficult chapters during the farm crisis and drought of the 1980s and also through one of its proudest moments during the 1989 centennial,” Burgum said.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., also a former North Dakota governor, praised Sinner for his service to the state.

“George Sinner demonstrated time and again his commitment to his family, community and the state of North Dakota,” Hoeven said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

(Reach Amy Dalrymple at 701-250-8267 or Amy.Dalrymple@bismarcktribune.com)

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