We said good-bye yesterday to a strong North Dakota voice at a remembrance service for Ardell Tharaldson. Cancer claimed my longtime friend last week, freeing him at last from a body that multiple sclerosis long ago confined to a wheelchair. But it never stilled his mind, which plotted and schemed scenarios for liberal takeovers of the universe until the day he died.
A better-than-amateur historian, and an incredible repository of information on North Dakota’s past, especially its political traditions and the Nonpartisan League, Ardell will leave the biggest void in our ability to remember our North Dakota past since the death of his friend, state historian Larry Remele, more than two decades ago.
What Ardell did leave us is a collection of anecdotes about his past, collected on a blog entitled Political Prairie Fire, the title a paean to his love of the Nonpartisan League. Yesterday at his memorial service, I read a few excerpts from his past blog entries. I’ll share some of them here. Because he was such a good writer and an interesting man, I encourage you to go to his blog and read more.
November 2007: About Norman Mailer
“I should write something about the passing of Norman Mailer. He certainly was one of the profound influences over me and my generation. Reading his ‘Armies of the Night’ or ‘Miami and the Siege of Chicago’ or watching him in the movie/documentary ‘When We Were Kings’ about Mohammed Ali fighting George Foreman in Zaire will lift your mind and heart.
“At the same time, like Bob Dylan, he would do some things that would make you shake your head and think “what in the hell is that guy doing?” Goodbye Norman, wherever you are.”
April 2007: Kurt Vonnegut and the McGovern campaign
“Kurt Vonnegut died this week. I feel as though I should say something.
“Like millions of others, my college roommate and I went through a Vonnegut period when we both read everything published by him. Many of his ideas and words worked their way into our lexicon where they remain.
“I crossed Kurt Vonnegut’s path in Kentucky in 1972. I was working for George McGovern’s Presidential campaign national office in Washington. I was sent to Kentucky for a couple weeks. Kentucky was not a primary state so we had to attempt to organize delegate attendance to caucuses at the district level to get yourself elected as a McGovern delegate to the state convention.
“A group of college kids who were organizing for McGovern had a function at the college in a town the name of which I no longer remember. Vonnegut was the person who came to speak in support of McGovern. When he walked into the room he was one of those guys that you just felt there was something special about. I have only had this feeling of being in the presence of something special a couple of other times. Once when I met the Berrigan brothers and once when I met Cesar Chavez.
“I remember how tall he was and how he chain-smoked. As I think back, his talk is sadly and remarkably relevant. He spoke about how the leadership at the time was not interested so much in spreading democracy as they were in spreading colonial power.
“I learned about institutional power in that state. The Governor of the state was a Humphrey supporter (emphasis added). I’m driving all over Kentucky having tea and crumpets with the League of Women Voters in one town, talking about human redemption with a group of ministers in another town, college kids all over, and a few rural black supporters organized by the local small-town powerbroker who was usually the local mortician for the black community. So I’m driving all over the state doing these little things attempting to convince people to attend the caucuses and vote for McGovern delegates.
“The caucuses were scheduled over a noon hour, which in retrospect should have been an instruction to me (emphasis added again). In all events, I’m in whatever town I ended up in on the day of the caucus. I’m sitting at the meeting, hopeful that all my delegate attendance work pays off, when at noon state trucks, road graders, caterpillars, and an assortment of other kinds of state vehicles pull up. Hundreds of men walked into the caucus meeting. Everyone is asked to vote for their choice of delegates. All of these Kentucky state employees vote for a Humphrey slate. The McGovern people are flat wiped off the map in terms of electing any delegates. This takes about 20 minutes. As soon as it’s over the state employees climbed back into their vehicles and drove away for their lunch.
“That was that.”
August 2009: About Ted Kennedy
“No social thing that I felt was good happened in the past 40 years without Ted’s hand.”
February 2009: About Howard Zinn
“You lived a good life Howard and you taught me I was just taking up space, if I wasn’t trying to help people who needed it.”
Ardell worked on a couple of American Indian Movement cases in the 1970’s. In one of them he got Russell Means and Dickie Poor Bear acquitted by Judge Van Sickle. Here’s a bit of what he wrote about that in May, 2007.
“At night I usually sat in the bar with the A.I.M. guys. One night Dickie came up to me and asked for a ‘chillum’ which was Lakota for cigarette. I was smoking Marlboro Reds at the time. I gave him one. He said it was the only good trade the Indian ever made with the White Man–a liver for a lung.
“One day I was driving Russell back to the hotel after the trial. We passed concrete after concrete after concrete and fast food place after fast food place and one synthetic human construction after another. He looked at me and said ‘And you think we should leave the reservation for this?’
“The last I heard about Poor Bear he was a cop in Porcupine South Dakota. Russell Means has gone on to an acting career. By the way he could never remember my name during the trial, so he simply called me ‘Little Custer.’”
April 2007: Working for Senator Burdick
“Decades ago I worked for United States Senator Quentin Burdick of North Dakota one summer in his Washington, DC, office. Many years before 9/11 and the Homeland Security Act. One of the “Summers of Love.”
“Back then the Capitol Hill cops were still under the patronage of Congress. The lawns around all of the Congressional office buildings were filled with young college kids with growing hair whose fathers were connected to a Congressman or Senator so they had a summer job wearing a cheesy police shirt, badge and shorts. One of the kids with a southern accent whose every day workplace was around a fountain was a guy you could always buy pot from.
“At this time the appointment of Postmasters in every city in America was under the patronage control of the United States Senate. A bill was introduced to take this power away from the United States Senate and put selection of Postmasters under Federal Civil Service control.
“The bill was sent to a subcommittee of which Senator Burdick was chairman. I went with the Senator for the floor action. During the floor debate Senator Burdick gave about as passionate of a speech as he was capable of giving, in which he railed against the bill for taking away Postmaster appointment patronage from the United States Senate.
“I remember Senator Burdick as being about the only vote against making the Postmasters job part of the Civil Service System.
“After the vote I rode back from the Senate floor with Senator Burdick to the office. We rode on the little trolley that connected the Capitol to the Old Senate Office Building. During the ride Burdick expressed satisfaction that at least we got the Postmaster appointments out of our hair. I expressed surprise, saying that it was big patronage power giving United States Senators the right to appoint Postmasters in every town in the United States, which I thought was a big deal.
“We rode on silently for a little while, then he said ‘Yeah, for each appointment, I made 1 friend and 10 enemies.’”
February 2008: Another McGovern Campaign Story
“In 1971, I went to work for the George McGovern for President campaign. Charlie Tighe persuaded me to manage the McGovern campaign in North Dakota for the fall election even though it would be a hopeless effort without much money. We did it because of our feelings about the war in Vietnam. Charles was the Lieutenant Governor during one of Bill Guy’s terms as Governor. He and his wife Dorothy did not have children and he loaned (gave) me money for college. I will always appreciate them for doing that.
“Phil Jackson was still playing for the New York Knicks at this time. He came to North Dakota for a few days to stump for McGovern. Dr. Levine had loaned the campaign the use of his old Volkswagen. His wife Beryl later went to law school and became a North Dakota Supreme Court judge. The Volkswagen’s battery did not work at first so we had to push and pop the clutch in order to start it. My friend Scott pushed and I drove to the Fargo airport to pick up Phil. We squished him in the back seat and drove him to the hotel. Along the way, he didn’t like what was on the radio so without moving, he reached the dashboard radio from the back seat and changed the station. I will always remember his arm slinking forward from the backseat between the front seats and grabbing the tuner knob on the radio. We got him some good smoke so he was happy even though he sometimes had to push.”
Basin Electric and Jim Grahl:
“I had my share of disagreements with Jim Grahl during my political activism and environmentalism in the early 70’s, to be sure. I was in his office one morning. He was complaining and expressing frustration. He told me I and other environmentalists made him feel like he was a track high hurdler. He said every time the bar is set up and he gets over it, we raise the bar. I told him he wants Basin Electric to receive special treatment from us because it’s a co-op but, sulfur dioxide coming out of a smokestack owned by a private utility or one owned by a public cooperative is just as toxic and dangerous to public health. He kicked me out of his office. As I was walking out, I went by the desk of his secretary, who was the sister of a friend of mine. She said that Jim didn’t do well with meetings held in the morning and said I should schedule any further meetings for afternoons.” (Note: This is a very short excerpt from a great piece on Basin Electric and the power cooperatives in North Dakota.)
Well, that’s just a sample of Ardell’s excellent writing. Ardell wrote Some Of The Best Things Ever Written About North Dakota. To read more—lots more—go to his blog, which will remain on the Internet for a while so folks can read more by—and about—this remarkable man.
Requiescant In Pace, my friend. We will miss you.