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Charisma of competence: William Guy, N.D. governor 1961-73, dies at 93

Former North Dakota Gov. William Guy at the Capitol in Bismarck.1 / 3
Former Gov. Bill Guy, right, and his wife were congratulated by many during the June 22, 2010, film screening pre-party at the Prairie Public studio. The screening for Clay Jenkinson's film "The Charisma of Competence: The Achievement of William L. Guy," was shown at the Fargo Theatre. Chris Franz / The Forum2 / 3
From left to right: John F. Kennedy, William Guy, and Quentin Burdick photographed at the newly built Fargo Civic Auditorium, June 1960. Everett Brust / Special to The Forum3 / 3

William L. Guy, governor of North Dakota from 1961 to 1973 and a force behind the modernization of the state during that 12-year stretch, died at his West Fargo home this morning. He was 93.

His passing was announced in a brief statement issued by his family, including his wife of 70 years, Jean. "His life was devoted to loving and serving his God, family, country and state," the statement said.

The farmer-turned-politician who spent his public life championing the long-stalled Garrison Diversion project had re-entered public life in recent years to advocate for a Bismarck-to-Fargo water pipeline, using the Missouri River as a backup to the Red to sustain eastern North Dakota towns, farms and industries.

He was a crew-cut, buttoned-down type who angered President Lyndon Johnson by raising doubts about America's involvement in Vietnam and who sparred with fellow North Dakotans as he doggedly pursued the dream of bringing Missouri River water east.

A giant

Former Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who got his start in politics at age 26 when Guy appointed him state tax commissioner, said he was saddened to hear of his mentor's passing. North Dakota "has lost one of the true giants in the history of our state," Dorgan said.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and a former governor, said Guy "in many ways modernized North Dakota and brought us into the 20th Century." On Guy's watch came the building of the Interstate Highway System, Garrison Diversion and development of North Dakota's critical role in America's nuclear deterrent, Hoeven said.

"He established a strong economic foundation for North Dakota's future. He was one of the first to recognize the enormous potential North Dakota has in the field of energy, especially coal and oil. He also knew the tremendous importance of agriculture to our economy and was one of the first to identify the potential of value-added agriculture, like sugar beet refining, to get the most out of our largest industry."

Gov. Jack Dalrymple, a Republican and fellow Cass County farmer, said Guy "left a meaningful legacy," and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said he "brought dignity to North Dakota politics" through his "competence and professionalism."

Tributes also came from a younger generation of state political figures, including N.D. Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, who said Guy was a leader who "did it with civility that is missing today."

At the other end of the age scale, U.S. District Judge Myron Bright said that he and Guy had been friends for 57 years.

"His record is one of great accomplishment," Bright said. "He will be remembered as one of this state's great public servants and a person who continuously contributed his abilities to making this state a better place to live, almost to the day of death."

'The charisma of competence'

"Nobody ever accused Bill Guy of being overly excitable ... or exciting," a 2008 newspaper profile of the former governor began.

"From his ever-tidy crew cut and conservative dress to a speaking style charitably described as deliberate, the former North Dakota governor put the middle in middle of the road. Even the name -- Bill Guy -- seemed a study in plaid."

But he left his mark by helping to lead his party out of irrelevant obscurity, in 1960 becoming only the third Democrat to win the governorship since statehood in 1889. He was re-elected three times, not through thrilling speeches but what historian and Democratic Party activist Larry Remele called "the charisma of competence."

Historian Clay Jenkinson used the term in his 2010 documentary on the former governor. "The Charisma of Competence: The Achievement of William L. Guy" premiered in Fargo.

"His achievement wasn't dramatic or glamorous," Jenkinson said at the time. "He was a quiet and masterful administrator who understood the problem of North Dakota."

Daughter Nancy Guy said she spent considerable time talking with her father about his career as they went through records for the documentary.

"The thing he was most proud of was the work they did at the State Hospital in Jamestown and bringing that up to date," she said. "Because of that, mental patients were not just being warehoused, but more of them were being treated in their communities and able to live more productive lives.

"He said it over and over, that he was proud of that. He felt so strongly about it."

'Securing our water future'

Garrison Diversion was a grand irrigation project that was to compensate the state for land flooded by the Garrison Dam, which provided flood control and other benefits for states downstream.

The project stalled in the face of opposition from environmentalists and other states, including Minnesota, and from Canada, which feared the introduction of exotic species into its waters if Missouri River water was brought to the Red River watershed.

Guy pushed hard for Garrison Diversion, and its bogging down "was his biggest disappointment," said Lloyd Omdahl, lieutenant governor under Democratic Gov. George Sinner.

In 2008, when Guy was living just a few hundred yards from the Red River on the far south end of Fargo, he said he still worried about the people, cities, farms and industries of eastern North Dakota having a dependable water supply. The answer still lay in the water of the Missouri River, he said, and he championed a pipeline that would run from Bismarck to Fargo.

He cited three pivotal events in North Dakota history that shaped the state: the Homestead Act of 1863, which brought settlers into Dakota Territory; the arrival of trains, which connected North Dakota crops with eastern consumers, and President Franklin Roosevelt's rural electrification program, which improved the lives of people and allowed for increased farm production and growing industry.

"I think getting the water to eastern North Dakota and securing our water future ranks right up there with those pivotal events," Guy said.

'Not Anemia'

Most of Guy's childhood was spent in the little Cass County town of Amenia -- "not Anemia," he routinely told audiences -- and he returned there to farm after earning degrees in agricultural economics from North Dakota Agricultural College (now North Dakota State University) and the University of Minnesota.

He also spent three years in the Navy during World War II.

In a 1992 memoir, "Where Seldom Was Heard a Discouraging Word," Guy said an early experience left him wary of addressing crowds, a timidity he had to overcome countless times as a candidate.

He was to perform a saxophone solo at a community gathering in Chaffee, N.D. It started well enough, but a dried-out pad fell out of the ancient instrument, causing "a discordant squawk." The pad rolled to the edge of the stage and fell off.

"The crowd went from stunned embarrassment to unrestrained laughter in seconds. I marched to the edge of the stage and down the stairs to retrieve the pad. Licking the glue on the back of the pad, I quickly pressed it back in place. It held. I again mounted the stage and replayed my solo.

"I've often said that I was so scarred by that humiliating episode that appearances before audiences have been painful ever since."

Years later, he sold his saxophone to raise money for an engagement ring for Jean. He said he never played the sax again.

Courted by GOP

Back in Amenia after the war, Guy was invited to run for precinct committeeman -- but by the Republicans. He started to collect signatures on a petition to run, but he was troubled, he said in 2008, that the Democrats, while hopelessly outnumbered, seemed a better fit.

He went home and told Jean about his dilemma. "I am interested in politics," he told her, "but there's no future in North Dakota in politics unless you're a part of the Republican Party."

"Well," his wife said, "there could be a Democratic Party in North Dakota if people wouldn't give up before they start."

Guy was elected Democratic precinct committeeman. He made two unsuccessful runs for the Legislature and one for state agriculture commissioner, but in 1958 he reached the state House of Representatives, serving as assistant minority leader under Rep. Arthur Link, D-Alexander.

In 1960, as John F. Kennedy won the presidency, Guy was elected governor. He was re-elected in 1962 and, after the term of governor was increased to four years, in 1964 and 1968. When he left office in 1973, he was succeeded by Link.

"While he was not very involved in the early in-fighting of the Nonpartisan League (which merged with the Democrats in the mid-1950s), his reputation as governor reassured the public that Democrats could be a responsible party," Omdahl said.

Guy's political career ended in 1974, when he challenged Republican U.S. Sen. Milton Young in a battle of state titans and lost by just 177 votes out of more than 237,000 cast. A third candidate, James Jungroth, collected several thousand votes and was widely believed to have cost Guy the election.

Letters to LBJ

President Lyndon Johnson asked Guy to join a delegation going to observe South Vietnam's first presidential election, a request Guy said he was "stunned" to receive.

"I had no desire to do so," he wrote in 1967. "I had always thought that we had made a mistake in becoming involved."

Guy had written to Johnson less than four months earlier.

"Two years ago, I thought our course of action in South Viet Nam was correct," he wrote to the president on April 27, 1967, according to papers stored with the State Historical Society in Bismarck and reviewed for a Forum Communications story last year. "Today, I am convinced that conditions and changing events have made continued fighting by our United States forces in South Viet Nam wrong."

A year later, Guy repeated that he had had "grave misgivings" when the United States stepped up its role in Vietnam.

"In my judgment, the grave social problems at home rated a higher priority than we might be able to give them in the face of rising commitments of manpower and tax money" in Southeast Asia, he said at the time.

Guy's opposition to the war grew in part from having lost a brother in a Japanese prison camp during World War II and nearly losing his own life when his destroyer was sunk by a Japanese dive bomber. "I believed that war was a very unsatisfactory way for men to settle their differences," he wrote on Sept. 15, 1967.

Call Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1102; or send email to chaga@gfherald.com.

Guy memorial planned

A memorial service for William L. Guy, 28th governor of North Dakota, will be held at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday at First Presbyterian Church, 650 2nd Ave. N. in Fargo, with visitation one hour prior to the service.

A second memorial service will be at 10 a.m. Thursday at the First Presbyterian Church, 214 E. Thayer Ave., Bismarck. A private burial will follow the Bismarck service at the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery, south of Mandan.

The Guy family encourages memorials to Dollars for Scholars, the Salvation Army or any favorite charity "making a difference in the lives of our fellow North Dakotans."