An Awesome Team

Let me say this about Jean Mason Guy, who buried her husband of 70 years today: I’ve known a few First Ladies of North Dakota, and of all of them, Jean is the one who could easily have filled the role of Governor rather than First Lady. Jean and Bill Guy were interchangeable. Bill Guy would agree. I almost never heard Bill use the word “I” as a stand-alone pronoun in all the conversations we had over the years. It was almost always “Jean and I.” In his memoir, Where Never Was heard A Discouraging Word, you will find the words “Jean and I” way more times than you find the word “I” standing alone.  They were a team; she was an integral part of all he did in his years of public service. And he did an awful lot. Together they did an awful lot.

I make that claim about Jean at some risk, because there are two other First Ladies who are close personal friends of mine, but Grace Link would never have considered that possibility, and Jane Sinner had the capability to do it, but not the patience, and she will be the first to admit that. Okay, second. Bud’s first.

The book, by the way, is good reading. It is not an autobiography, but a whole series of short anecdotes—vignettes as the Governor calls them in his conclusion. Most are a little bit funny.  Bill Guy was known for being kind of corny funny, much like another Casselton Governor I once worked for. It is a very homey book, and it is very much the Bill Guy you would want to be friends with. He starts with a Foreword about how to become a political candidate, from his own experience.   Let me share a passage:

Picture a political rally in a small North Dakota town hall. The chairs, lined up in rows, are old theater seats that creak and groan as people shift their weight. The veneer on the back has been chipped off, and enough gum has been plastered beneath the folding seats to keep the Russian army chewing for months. The candidate is on the stage, standing before a backdrop of faded and dusty plush curtains. His knuckles are white as he grips the sides of the old, battered lectern at the side of the stage. The speaker is a politician. He knows from experience that the microphone angling out from the chromium pipe anchored in the heavy metal base may or may not work, depending on his luck. And when it doesn’t work, the engineer in charge of keeping the microphone working is probably at home eating supper or vacationing in some faraway land. The politician probably pulls that standing microphone nearer to the edge of the lectern because it gets pretty tiresome shouting across a lectern, trying to talk into an ancient microphone.

            The candidate begins. “You can’t blame me for feeling a little scared, standing up here, speaking to a crowd in a big city like Crosby, cause I’m more used to speaking in a little place, like my home town of Amenia. Yes, I said Amenia—not amnesia and not anemia—but Amenia. I grew up in that little town back in the depression years of the 1930s. Now, I don’t expect any women in this audience to be old enough to remember those depressions years of the 1930s, but I’ll bet there are a few men in this audience who can remember.” The self-conscious titter of the older women in the audience eases the tension and the politician stops gripping the lectern and starts to gently caress its battered sides.

That’s Bill Guy humor, and the book is full of it. Kind of funny. It made this very serious man feel good when he got to tell anecdotes with zingers at the end. It was an outlet he needed. And used effectively.

I’m not going to start missing Bill Guy now, because I’ve already been through that. I haven’t seen him much since his health failed, but a few of his kids are personal friends, and I see them, and get regular reports on Bill and Jean. That will continue. His funeral was one of the best I’ve been to, right down to the few hundred friends singing along to the Navy Hymn (I leaned over to Lillian and suggested I’d like that at mine, too) and the elderly preacher, obviously a family friend, telling about getting stopped for speeding on his way over from Fargo, telling the patrolman he was on his way to Bismarck to preach at Bill Guy’s funeral,  and getting an escort from the Patrolman at 78 miles per hour as far as Steele.

Personal reminiscences:

Bill Guy was the first Governor I ever voted for. It was his last race for Governor, in 1968, I turned 21 in September, had an absentee ballot sent to me at my U.S. Navy base in Pensacola, Florida, and voted for a fellow sailor for Governor. And for Rollie Redlin for West district Congressman. Guy won, his fourth election victory. Redlin lost, his second election loss.

In 1981 I was hired as executive director of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party. The party had been devastated in the 1980 election. We had lost every office in the State Capitol except for Bruce Hagen on the Public Service Commission and Kent Conrad in the Tax Commissioner’s office. The Republicans had two thirds majorities in the Legislature, 73-27 in the House and 40-10 in the Senate. I was one of the young liberals involved in the party in the rambunctious 1970s, when we railed against the establishment and the coal companies and the Republican business community in North Dakota, and we were licking our wounds in early 1981 at the Kennedy Center in Bismarck. A group of party officers and former elected officials gathered to talk strategy, to begin the process of rebuilding, and the talk went around the table. And when it came to Bill Guy, he started to talk about broadening the base of the party—exactly what he had done in the 1960s when he built the party—and appealing to the business community, especially the small business community. “We need to remember that profit is not a dirty word,” are the words I remember from his remonstrance to the group. And, led by businessman George Gaukler, the state party chairman, and businessman Bud Sinner, the party’s nominee for Governor at the next election, we heeded those words and rebuilt the party.

By 1985, we had captured a significant share of the Capitol offices again, and significantly strengthened our numbers in the Legislature. Sinner was Governor, Gaukler was still chairman, and I was still executive director. And one day in June of that year, I had one of those rare moments, one you get maybe half a dozen times in a lifetime, one of those that makes your chest puff up so much it starts bursting the buttons on your shirt, and I’ll never forget the moment. My secretary brought in the mail and there was a four inch by six inch envelope there with just an address on the outside: 2920 Manitoba Lane, Bismarck, North Dakota, 58501. Inside was a plain, two-sided card with the words WILLIAM L. GUY embossed in small type across the bottom, and both sides were filled with the exquisite handwriting of our former governor—a handwritten note to me!

Dear Jim – I’ve been going to write you a note for some time. Perhaps I am repeating myself. Congratulations on a job exceptionally well done as Ex. Director of the Dem-NPL. That is one of the most trying and sensitive jobs there is. You handled it with skill and courage that very few people have to give to that kind of work. You were especially good as a spokesman for the party—taking on the opposition with a directness and honesty that made us all proud.  I don’t know what your future plans are. I had hoped you would be strengthening the Sinner Administration. But whatever you decide to do, you’ll do well. Please call on me if I can be of help to you in the future.”


Bill Guy


Well. High praise. I thought about it for a while. And then I called Chuck Fleming, the new Governor’s chief of staff, with whom I had worked closely on the Governor’s campaign in 1984, and said “I guess I’d like one of those government jobs.” I used Bill Guy as a reference. Pretty much sealed the deal. It changed the course of my life significantly. I went from being a political hack to State Tourism Director, and spent much of the rest of my professional life marketing North Dakota.

There are as many Bill Guy stories as there are once-young men like me. Bill Guy believed in public service. He was so very good at it. He encouraged others who he thought would be good at it to get involved. Many did. He built a generation of leaders for this state, the kind of leaders that would be so refreshingly welcome today amid the chaos that has enveloped North Dakota state government.

On behalf of a grateful state, I say Thank You, Bill and Jean Guy.

One thought on “An Awesome Team

  1. I too remember Bill and Jean Guy who made us proud to be North Dakotans wherever they represented us. They were the model of charm and grace and so kind. My husband (at the time) always played, “Jean, Jean” when they graced our place of business and they would dance to it. What a lovely memory.


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