HELENA (AP) – Former Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs, who dedicated years to public service and was widely known for his role in negotiating an end to the Freemen standoff near Jordan, died Sunday at his home in Helena. He was 61.
Ohs had been fighting brain cancer after being diagnosed in March, family members said. He died at about 9:30 a.m. with his wife, Sherri, and other family by his side.
Ohs, a rancher from Harrison, served as lieutenant governor from 2000-04 under Republican Gov. Judy Martz. He also served in the state House for several years in the 1990s, acting as majority whip during the ’97 and ’99 legislative sessions.
In 2005, he was elected chairman of the Montana Republican Party; he didn’t seek re-election this year.
Martz described Ohs as an “honorable man” and a “great negotiator” who loved God and his family.
“Karl was a true friend, first of all, to almost everybody he met,” she said Sunday. “I don’t think Karl had an enemy.”
She also noted Ohs’ devotion to public service, which included serving as chairman of the National Lieutenant Governors Association; the governor’s Drought Advisory Committee; and the governor’s Corrections Advisory Council.
“He really served the people,” Martz said. “He wasn’t about serving himself.”
Ohs made a name for himself in 1996 by helping law enforcement negotiate a peaceful end to the 81-day standoff with the anti-government Freemen.
At the request of the FBI, he served as principal negotiator, making 19 separate trips on horseback into the Freemen’s armed compound in Garfield County.
The FBI later honored Ohs for his efforts, giving him the 1998 Lou Peters Award for public service.
In May 2002, Ohs sent ripples through political waters when he told The Associated Press that his job as lieutenant governor was a disappointing one that left him out of major decisions and relegated him to a schedule of mostly ceremonial events. The following spring, he said the job had improved and that he and Martz had both “become more comfortable with our roles.” He credited Martz’s decision to make him her point man on education issues.
He considered running for governor in 2003 but later decided against it, citing personal and business reasons.
Ohs was born in November 1946 in Havre and grew up in Phillips County, graduating from Malta High School. He studied agricultural economics at Montana State University in the 1960s but left just a few classes shy of graduation to return to the family ranch when his father broke his leg.
He returned to school after his dad mended, and finished another quarter of classes. But he had to leave again in January 1969 to help the family move to a new ranch near Harrison.
Ohs promised himself he would go back to college but continued ranching for years. At age 57, he returned to MSU and earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture production, while serving as lieutenant governor.
“This degree is probably going to mean a lot more to me than an awful lot of things I’ve had the privilege to accomplish,” he told the AP in May 2004. “There’s always that little bit of embarrassment when you know you’re so close and you didn’t get it done.”
Besides ranching, Ohs and his wife owned rental houses and storage units in Helena and Belgrade.
Martz said Ohs appeared to be in good health until he started having headaches and was diagnosed with brain cancer earlier this year. He underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor in the spring.
Ohs fought his illness but “left this earth with peace in his heart,” Martz said.
“One of the things that stands out about Karl … he was a tremendous man of God,” she said. “His faith meant everything to him.”
Funeral services are pending.
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