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Trottier steps down from state arts council chair post

By Staff | Feb 7, 2020


A prominent figure in local and regional arts stepped down from his post as board chair of the North Dakota Council on the Arts recently, marking the end of 30 years of service with the agency.

Rugby resident David “White Thunder” Trottier saw his position with the NDCA expand to nearly 22 years as chair of the council and forge new paths for people of Native American ancestry.

In a press release from the NDCA, Trottier said of his Jan. 15 resignation, “It has been a distinct and great honor to serve the people of North Dakota in this capacity for such an appreciable amount of time as the first Native American to serve in such a capacity in the state of North Dakota, and in the country. I am also honored to have been the longest serving Arts Council member and Arts Council Chair in the United States.”

Trottier spoke with the Tribune last week about his many successes in art and business, which include growing tech company Chiptronics’ sales from $5 million to $40 million and winning national, state and academic recognition for contributions to the arts.

Trottier said he grew up on the Fort Totten Reservation, where he first crossed paths with a person who would spark an interest in the arts within him.

“I have this deep-seated love of theater,” Trottier said. “My friend, Beth Johnson founded Fort Totten Little Theater in 1963. Her son, Bob, and I went to school together so I hung around the Johnson house a lot and we got to see shows as kids.”

Imitating a child’s wide-eyed expression, Trottier recounted his first exposure to the theater.

“I was in the audience, thinking I was seeing a Hollywood production,” he said. “Then they would kiss onstage! I thought, ‘How could they kiss in front of all these people?’ “

“My friend Bob would say, ‘That’s a real kiss, too, you know!’ ” Trottier added.

“But stuff like that exposed me to theater,” Trottier said as his eyes began to water. “It was all because of Beth, rest her soul.”

Trottier developed an interest in sports in high school. His family had moved to Belcourt for his parents’ job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“My high school in Belcourt didn’t do theater,” Trottier said. “They did one production where I was in French class. My French teacher was also my English teacher, and one day she said, ‘I don’t know what to do! We’re doing a melodrama and my villain quit! I’m going to have to call off the play.'”

After some persuasion from Trottier, the teacher put him in the villain role.

“I went to the library and started memorizing a few lines and had a rehearsal,” Trottier said. “I did a rehearsal that night, studied my lines and the next day, we did an afternoon performance for the school and a community performance at night and I didn’t miss a line.”

“And I thought, ‘This is kind of fun.'” Trottier said. “But this was only a project. It was the only time I did a play. My high school didn’t do theater.”

Trottier said playing sports in high school led to a spot on Mayville State University’s football team, and respect from coworkers at his summer job at a Brunswick manufacturing facility at Fort Totten.

“I played on the softball team at Brunswick,” Trottier said.

Trottier’s abilities in softball gave him leverage when he was asked to come back to the facility for a second summer.

“I said, ‘I’m not coming back this summer. I don’t want to work on that assembly line again,’ ” Trottier recalled, saying he had plans to stay in Mayville to take more classes for his English major and work at a pizzeria.

Trottier said the company found a position for him in their personnel office.

“I packed my bags and went home for the summer to work in personnel at the manufacturing plant,” Trottier said.

After graduating from Mayville State with a bachelor’s degree in English, Trottier landed a permanent job in human resources with the company, setting the stage for a successful business career.

However, Trottier’s education at Mayville had developed his talent in writing and fueled his passion in theater.

Trottier said, “When I went to Mayville, the spring of my freshman year, I saw they were doing the musical, ‘Damn Yankees.’ So, I was sitting in the audience watching, and I said, ‘Wow! I’ve got to do this!’ “

“The next year, I tried out for plays as a sophomore,” Trottier noted. “I did bit parts as a sophomore, bigger roles as a junior and as a senior, I got lead roles. I got the lead role in the Shakespeare production of Twelfth Night – Sir Toby Belch, for which I got Best Actor in a Play (at Mayville State). Then, I got to do Alfred P. Doolittle from ‘My Fair Lady,’ which I did a few years ago here in Rugby, and I got Best Actor in a Musical for that my senior year.”

“Then,” Trottier added, “I was inducted into Alpha Psi Omega, the dramatic arts fraternity. Dr. Christopher Jones, who was the lead dancer in ‘White Christmas’, by the way – dancing with Bing Crosby and Danny Kay – he’s the guy in the green outfit — that’s who I studied under!”

“As a senior,” Trottier said, “for our last show, ‘My Fair Lady’, Dr. Jones did Henry Higgins. So, I also got to be onstage with him. He said before the show, ‘Does anybody have anything to say?’ I said, ‘This is my last show. I’m a senior.’ I get really emotional when I talk about this. But I said, ‘I want to thank you for everything I’ve learned from you because I’ve learned so much.'”

With eyes watering again, Trottier said, “Dr. Jones said, ‘What you have learned here is now yours. What you do with it after you leave here is up to you.'”

Trottier said Jones’ words remained prominent in his mind as he moved up in the business world, becoming a partner, CEO and president of tech company Chiptronics, later known as Benchmark Electronics in Dunseith.

Trottier had also involved himself in music during that time, forming a band called “The North Band” with friends and performing throughout the state on weekends. The band broke up in 1996.

“In the late ’90s, I got a call from Mayville State and they said they were remodeling the theater,” Trottier recalled.

“I was at Chiptronics and doing great. I said, ‘What do you need?’ They said, ‘We could really use some new curtains.’ I bought them new curtains. I was happy to be a part of that,” Trottier said.

Trottier continued, “They called back and asked, ‘Do you want anything?’ I asked, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Do you want anything special to go up in the theater?’ I said no, but then I said, ‘Wait a minute, I do. I would like a plaque to go up in the back of the theater that says, ‘What you have learned here is now yours. What you do with it after you leave here is up to you – attributed to Dr. Jones.'”

“That hangs there to this day,” Trottier said.

Trottier’s successes in business and arts involvement had already caught the attention of art advocates in the public sector. In 1990, Gov. George Sinner appointed him to the NDCA board of directors.

The volunteer position led to nearly three decades of service in the arts.

Trottier joked, “I had to break in five governors.”

In 1998, after moving the NDCA office from Fargo to Bismarck and downsizing the board, Gov. Ed Schafer appointed Trottier to chair the board.

“I just consider myself a small town guy, not a big deal, so I said, ‘Are you sure you’ve got the right guy?’ ” Trottier recalled. “I said that to Governor Sinner when he appointed me, too.”

“There were five different executive directors that I worked with during my tenure as chairman, dozens and dozens of great staffers and over 150 or so council members over the years. I was a constant,” Trottier said.

Trottier’s service continued under Govs. Jack Dalrymple and Doug Burgum.

Trottier said during his years with the NDCA, “I saw the arts council go down in size a lot. There are a lot of people who don’t think government money should be spent on the arts at the state and federal level. We’ve had to put up with that. The budget of the National Endowment of the Arts has been anywhere between $150 and $170 million on a national basis.”

“One year,” Trottier said, “They proposed $10 million. That gives everybody enough money to shut down, basically. That didn’t fly because there were too many in Washington who know the value of the arts and want to keep it going.”

Trottier said along with financial matters, “advocacy’s been a big thing over the years in the arts. I’ve seen a lot of that stuff kind of come and go with different organizations that we’ve tried to get going. It’s a tough go for them to hang around the Capitol and tell people they need to spend more money on the arts.”

Trottier added, “I’ve seen a lot of different governors and first ladies.”

During Trottier’s time on the board, his resume grew. The NDCA press release lists his accomplishments as “being named the ND Business Innovator of the Year (2002); selection as Mayville State Commencement Speaker (2002); selection as Distinguished Alumni of Mayville State University (2002); runner-up for National Indian Business Owner of the year (1997 and 2005); completing a six-year term with the N.D. Community Foundation, the last year as their Chair; and serving a three-year term on the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA) Board of Directors (2000-2002).”

The release continued, “In 2007 NASAA named Trottier the recipient of its Distinguished Public Service Award. The award was presented in Baltimore, Maryland during Assembly 2007, NASAA’s conference. The award honors an individual volunteer leader whose outstanding service, creative thinking and leadership have had a significant impact on the field of public support for the arts in his or her state or region.”

Trottier said although he stepped down from his post to pursue personal interests, he still stays in touch with the board members. “I tell them I’m just a phone call away.”

Future plans for Trottier include continuing his work at radio station KZZJ.

Until 2018, Trottier had been Human Resources director at Heart of America Medical Center.

Trottier said he told his friend, KZZJ owner Lila Harstad, “‘When I’m ready to retire, I’ll just come help you at the radio station. It’ll give me something to do. I love being on the air; I love being the creative force behind the station. I love writing the commercials and the things that come out on the air.”

Trottier has been a Rugby resident since 1992. He and his former wife, Helen, brought up four daughters in the community. All graduated from Rugby High School. Trottier’s oldest daughter, Tarah Trottier, returned to Rugby after receiving her nursing degree from Lake Region State College and UND. Second daughter, Tawny Cale, is a Mayville State alumnus, stay-at-home mom and Air Force wife living in Minot. Trottier’s third daughter, Trista Busche, recently took time off from her job at a Jamestown credit union to stay at home with her children as well. Her husband works at the University of Jamestown. Youngest daughter Tashal Trottier is a pharmacy technician living in Texas.

Trottier said Rugby “is very nice community to become a part of and be a part of.”

Rugby’s Village Arts gave Trottier yet another opportunity for arts involvement. He reprised his Mayville State role as Alfred P. Doolittle in “My Fair Lady” under late Village Arts Director Deb Jenkins.

Trottier said he also plans to devote more time to music. He’s in a new band called “U3 Plus One,” both a nod to the band U2 and an answer to the question, “What do you three call yourselves?” Members are Dr. Thomas Samson, Joseph Hoffert, Thomas Ault and Brad Bales.

“There have been certain times in life when you say, ‘Where do I go from here?'” Trottier noted after a pause. ” And for me, it’s reached a point where I want to be a better brother, I want to be a better father, I want to be a better grandfather, better friend always.”

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