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Dale Wetzel, Associated Press
Wayne Sanstead, right, North Dakota's superintendent of public instruction, speaks in his office of the North Dakota state Capitol in Bismarck, N.D., about his decision not to seek re-election as his wife, Mary Jane Sanstead, left, listens on on Friday, Feb. 17, 2012. Sanstead, 76, who was first elected superintendent in 1984, is the nation's longest-serving state school administrator. A former Minot high school teacher, Sanstead has also been a North Dakota state legislator and lieutenant governor during his public career.

BISMARCK, N.D. — Wayne Sanstead, North Dakota's state school superintendent for almost 28 years and the nation's longest-serving state school administrator, said Friday he will not run for re-election, ending a public career that has lasted almost a half-century.

"I've found real meaning in being a leader. Public service has been my life. So the decision didn't come lightly," the 76-year-old Sanstead said during an interview in his office.

According to the Council of Chief State School Officers, a Washington-based organization of education administrators, the former Minot teacher and speech and debate coach is the longest-serving state school administrator in the country.

Sanstead's public career has lasted almost 50 years. He is a former state representative and senator who served as lieutenant governor for most of the 1970s, during the administration of Democratic Gov. Arthur Link.

His office walls are decorated with photos of political figures, including a picture of Sanstead with Arnold Schwarzenegger before he became governor of California and a personally autographed photo of former President Harry Truman, whom Sanstead met when he was a college student in Minnesota.

Sanstead was first elected as North Dakota's superintendent of public instruction in 1984, winning 78 percent of the vote against Republican Larry Nudell after the incumbent, Joseph Crawford, declined to seek re-election.

The superintendent's job is officially nonpartisan. Candidates run in the same ballot column and are not identified by party. However, Republican and Democratic state convention delegates offer letters of support to favored candidates.

Sanstead easily won re-election six times, running unopposed in 1988 and getting more than 60 percent of the vote in three other campaigns. He's confident he could win another re-election campaign.

"I have it happen every day. They come up to me in the grocery store or the gas station and say, 'Boy, we're glad you're there,'" Sanstead said.

State Sen. Raymon Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, lost to Sanstead in 1996 and 2000. Holmberg said he voted for Sanstead four years ago, when Sanstead defeated fellow Democrat Max Laird for his seventh term.

"He was my man in 2008," Holmberg said. "I'm glad I ran against him, and I'm also glad I voted for him."

Sanstead received 55 percent of the vote in 2008, even though the Democratic convention delegates' supported Laird, a former president of the North Dakota Education Association. It was the first time Sanstead had been rebuffed in his quest for the Democrats' support.

Laird said Friday he could "only congratulate Wayne for a long and highly successful career, both in office and during election cycles."

"He's the man in North Dakota in terms of education and politics," Laird said. "Wayne Sanstead is the icon of that subject."

Sanstead has been the only Democratic statewide elected official in the Capitol since the April 2009 resignation of Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson, who left to become president of the National Farmers Union in Washington, D.C.

The state capitol's longest-serving political officeholders are Sanstead and Republican Secretary of State Al Jaeger, who was first elected in 1992.

A native of Arkansas, Sanstead earned a bachelor's degree in speech and political science from St. Olaf College, a Lutheran school in Northfield, Minn. He later earned a master's degree in communications from Northwestern and a doctorate in secondary education from the University of North Dakota.

After graduating from St. Olaf, Sanstead taught for a year in Luverne, Minn., before moving to Minot in 1960, where he was a high school teacher for 18 years.

One of Sanstead's former students is Dakota Draper, the current North Dakota Education Association president and a 1975 Minot High School graduate. Sanstead taught his government class.

"He was a great teacher. I remember he got us to think and really apply what he was trying to teach us," Draper said Friday. "His whole career ... has had one constant theme, and that is kids, and making education better in North Dakota."

Jon Martinson, director of the North Dakota School Boards Association, had similar praise.

"I don't know of anyone who enjoys being out in the public, and being among schoolkids, more than Wayne does," Martinson said. "He's not one who stays in his office, and I think that's really neat."