Thomas D. Isern is Professor of History & University Distinguished Professor at North Dakota State University, Fargo, North Dakota. Born and raised on a wheat farm in western Kansas, he has lived all his life on the plains of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska, Saskatchewan, and North Dakota (except when abroad, studying the grasslands of New Zealand and Australia).
Isern holds a BA degree from Bethany College, Lindsborg, Kansas, as well as MA and PhD degrees from Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, Oklahoma. Prior to coming to NDSU in 1992, Isern served eleven years on the faculty of Emporia State University, Kansas.
Isern’s academic specialty is the history and folklore of the Great Plains of North America, his research and teaching comprising both the American plains and the Canadian prairies. He is the author or co-author of six books, as well as the forthcoming Of Land and Sky: History at the Grassroots of the Canadian Prairies, in production at Texas A & M University Press. His particular interest is the story of farming, ranching, and rural life on the plains. He explores this interest in frequent lectures and concerts for public and professional audiences throughout the region. He also writes about it (co-authorship with Jim Hoy) in the weekly (since 1983) newspaper column, Plains Folk. He speaks about it weekly on the public radio service of Prairie Public, his features aired statewide on radio and also offered worldwide via the NPR app, NPR One.
In 1991, as a Fulbright Scholar, Isern investigated the agricultural history of the tussock grasslands of New Zealand; in 1996 he went back for further work in New Zealand under a Programme Development Grant from the NZ-US Educational Foundation; and he returns there frequently to continue a line of research in agricultural and environmental history.
The Great Plains from Texas to Saskatchewan: Place, Memory, Identity was the National Endowment for the Humanities seminar for school teachers Isern led in the summers of 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006, and 2008. This intensive study experience for master teachers from across the US examined the culture of the plains through the works of Walter Prescott Webb, Willa Cather, N. Scott Momaday, and Wallace Stegner.
Isern is the founding director of NDSU’s Center for Heritage Renewal, an applied research and service center devoted to historic preservation and heritage tourism on the northern plains.
At NDSU Isern has received the Peltier Award for Innovative Teaching and been named both the Fargo Chamber of Commerce Distinguished Professor as well as the Dale Hogoboom Presidential Professor. In 2007 President Chapman conferred on Isern the title of University Distinguished Professor, one of the first seven such appointments campus-wide.
To a degree unusual among academic historians, Isern is committed to communication and engagement with the regional public. He devotes his research to regional issues; teaches resident and extramural courses dealing with regional history and folklore; serves as an officer and volunteer for state and local organizations; and most of all, speaks and writes for the general public, not only for the academic community. These things flow from his personal affection for the land and people of the North American plains and from his professional devotion to the quality of regional life.
Isern is married to fellow historian Suzzanne Kelley, editor of North Dakota State University Press. They have four adult children and nine grandchildren. They reside in rural Cass County and are members of Fargo’s Immanuel Lutheran Church.