There are not many people about whom you can say, honestly, not wishfully or wistfully, “He was one of a kind.” Such a man was Larry Erickson.
Larry died late Thursday afternoon with his loving wife Claryce beside him, and his kids surrounding him. He had beaten cancer a couple of times, but in the end it took too great a toll on his body. A whole lot of people are going to miss this man. I’m among them. I want to tell you some of what I know about this great man, mostly from experiences I had with him.
I had only heard of him before I became Buckshot Hoffner’s campaign manager when he ran for state Agriculture Commissioner in 1980, shortly before I became executive director of North Dakota’s Democratic-NPL Party. It didn’t take long after I went to work for the party to get to know the “Minot Mafia.” That was the group of Minot Party Bosses who were indicted in the infamous First Western Bank scandal in 1968-69. The group was Erickson, who was state Democratic-NPL Chairman at the time, Mark Purdy, who was the party’s National Committeeman, State Representative Richard Backes and former State Representative Gary Williamson. It was a big scandal—a bunch of Democrats who had either been elected or helped others get elected to state and federal offices during the Lyndon Johnson years, charged and prosecuted by a bunch of Republicans appointed to federal law enforcement jobs by Richard Nixon. In the end, nobody went to the pokey. Larry pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and paid a $1,000 fine. You can read the whole story on the late Ardell Tharaldson’s blog, here. Fascinating.
My knowledge of the scandal came from the Dickinson Press. I was floating around the Gulf of Tonkin on an aircraft carrier at the time, and had a subscription to the Dickinson Press. We got mail only sporadically, so when it came, I would sometimes have up to a dozen papers. I’d unwrap them from their brown wrappers, smooth them out in a stack in front of me, and read them in order. From time to time there would be a burst of news about First Western, so it was kind of like reading a crime novel or watching a soap opera. By the end of the story, sometime in 1970, I think, I found myself cheering for these rapscallions from Minot who had decided they could play in the big leagues, just like the Republicans did, and almost got away with it.
Well, ten years later I found myself sitting around a table with these one-time heroes of mine (often a bar table) talking strategy about getting Minot Democrats elected, and helping George Sinner toss Allen Olson out of office. We did that, of course, and I got a reward. One day in the spring of 1985, while I was wrapping up my duties at Party headquarters and preparing to become State Tourism Director, my phone rang and it was Larry Erickson, and he said “Jim Fuglie, how’d you like to go fishing in Canada? We’re heading up there in June and we’d like you to come along.”
Holy shit! The Minot Mafia wants to take me on their annual Canadian fishing trip! I’ve just been “made!” Just like in the movies!
I went. I could tell you a couple dozen stories about that trip, and subsequent ones, but what happens in Canada stays in Canada. But I’ll tell you that I did ask Larry before we left what a typical day was like up there. He said we’d just fish all day, then have supper back in camp, then sit around the fire and drink a few martinis until it got dark, then go to bed. Sounded good to me. Until the first night we were there, and I finally realized at about 3 a.m. that it never really gets dark at the end of June, at the end of the road, in Northern Saskatchewan. And the martinis never run out.
That began a nearly 30-year friendship. It ended Thursday night. But the memories, the stories, will linger the rest of my life.
His life, of course, is the stuff of legend. His son Jon told me Thursday night that Larry joked that at least half the people who would come to his funeral were coming to make sure he was really dead. Well, there might be a few . . .
Larry’s political involvement goes back to the late 1950’s. His father Lawrence, a grand old man by the time I met him, had been involved in Democrat and NPL Politics for many years, and Larry was one of those young bucks at the 1960 NPL convention that helped bring the League into the Democratic Party. Four years later he was elected to the North Dakota House of Representatives in the Johnson landslide of 1964. Democrats controlled the House in the 1965 session, and Art Link was elected Speaker of the House, the first Democrat to serve in that position. The glory days for the newly-merged Democratic-NPL Party ended quickly—one session in the majority—and Larry was one of those who only served that one term. But then he got himself elected State Chairman of the Party and from that point on, he was involved only in organizational politics, never running for office again. But he remained a force, and there wasn’t a single elected official—Burdick, Dorgan, Conrad, Pomeroy, Guy, Link and all the rest—who wouldn’t take his phone calls. And they were frequent. He took a liking to Heidi Heitkamp back when she was Tax Commissioner, and Sarah Vogel, when she was Commissioner of Agriculture, and they remained lifelong friends, in spite of the fact he chewed them out mercilessly when they strayed from the Democratic fold. He gave Heidi the nickname “Big Red”—although I’m pretty sure he was the only one who ever called her that to her face.
Former North Dakota Farmers Union President Robert Carlson, in a post on my Facebook page, said “This is a loss of a unique man who was always irascible, often profane, and always loyal to co-ops, Farmers Union philosophy, and friends of any progressive movement.”
He was right about the irascible and profane part. Irreverent, too. But so disarmingly lovable he could get away with it most of the time. Larry served on the North Dakota Centennial Commission in the 1980’s, as did I. Larry was appointed by Bud Sinner to serve as Chairman Art Link’s Vice Chairman. Sinner appointed the Centennial Commission members in 1985, and we met every month for four years, for day-long, sometimes two-day meetings. 45 meetings of that group, I think. We got to know each other well. When the Centennial finally came in 1989, there were dozens, maybe a hundred, Centennial parades around the state, and we agreed that at least one member of the Commission would ride in every parade. Larry had a neighbor, Danny Tuchscherer, who had some big horses, Percherons, I think, and Larry commandeered them, with a big wagon, for parades. Those horses were wide across the beam, and at the time, both Heidi and Sarah were a little chunky themselves, and Larry named those two horses Heidi and Sarah, much to the ladies’ chagrin. And told everyone he met—introduced those two horses as Heidi and Sarah to everyone on the parade route. “There I was, riding down Main Street, staring at the back end of Heidi and Sarah,” he’d say, and then burst out laughing.
There are a lot of Larry Erickson stories, and I suspect when they have a memorial service for him one of these days, a lot of them will get told. Here’s one. I had an outdoors writer doing an article on hunting Hungarian partridge for a national outdoors magazine here, and I knew Larry had some partridge that hung around his ranch, the Diamond T, so we stopped there to hunt them. The writer and I walked from one end of the field to the other and were just getting ready to start back when Larry comes barreling down the field in his pickup. “Hop in,” he said. Well, we did so reluctantly , because in North Dakota it is illegal to drive off a road when you are hunting. I told Larry that as we drove back, to the road, and he replied “Hell, there ain’t any game wardens around here.” Except that there was one, and he was sitting at the road at the end of the field, watching us. Bad timing.
Well, Larry pulls up beside him, hops out, and the warden says “Sir, you’re not allowed to drive off the road, you know.” To which Larry replies, pretty belligerently, “Well, I can.”
Oh, shit, I think, we’re in big trouble. But Larry proceeds to tell him that this is his land, and he can drive on it if he wants to. A conversation ensues, and the next thing I know, Larry’s back in the pickup and we’re driving away.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Well, I told him I was out checking cows and I saw these two guys hunting on my land without permission, so I drove down the field and told them to get in the truck, and I was hauling your asses out of here, kicking you off my land, when I came across Mr.Warden. He asked me if I wanted to press charges, and I said no, I just want to get rid of them.”
About that time the warden has driven away, and we’re back at my vehicle, and we get out of his pickup and follow him over to the house, where we drink coffee and eat some of Claryce’s pie and have a good laugh. I’m not sure to this day if that is what he really did, but I know that all’s well that ends well, so I never did ask any more questions.
Larry loved horses, and he loved the Bad Lands, and he loved national parks. He traveled the country visiting national parks, including for four years as a member of the National Park Board (yes, there once was such a thing—I think it was called the National Parks Advisory Committee—and I think it was his friend Gary Williamson’s Georgia connections to Jimmy Carter that got him that appointment), one of the greatest perks in all of government. But he most enjoyed trailering his horse out to the Bad Lands, and he’d cuss at the ranchers who had the cheap grazing leases on the Little Missouri National Grasslands, dubbing them “Welfare Ranchers,” because what they paid to lease grazing land from the government was about half of what he paid his neighbors back home in Ward County.
Tributes are pouring in on social media. Here’s one of the best, from his grandson Jake, a student at Yale:
“Last night, I was with my dad, my aunts Susie and Vicky, and my grandma Claryce as my grandfather, Larry Erickson, died after a prolonged medical fight. It’s hard to comprehend that he’s no longer with us. Those who knew Larry know that he was mythic in stature and that the brilliance of his personality is hard to exaggerate (even, especially, as a grandson who loved him dearly). Many of you hold such stories. He was a rich political mind–ND State Democratic-NPL Chairman, member of the ND State Legislature, member of the National Park Service Board. He was often identified as the leader of what was called the “Minot Mafia” cohort of politicians. He was one of the true agrarian radicals (as Robert Carlson pointed out), an instigator of grassroots democracy and prairie fire populism, a fierce champion of unions, cooperatives, and cooperative ownership. He was chums with LBJ, delegate to the riotous 1968 Chicago Convention, and loved that damn three-legged dog, Tiffany. He instilled the beauty of the farm and the intense, hard values of progressivism. He inspired most of my hard questions about religion. His wit and brutal honesty terrified many and endeared him to many more. He despised disloyalty, cheap Christians and pieties, weakness of character. In short, he was to me and so many–without exaggeration–a prophet of the human spirit. My world is a shadow of its former self today. But, by God, he left a family that carries his spirit well, and we’re holding so close in love.”
Isn’t that something? There’s a lot of Larry in that boy. Here’s another from Alice Olson, longtime Democratic-NPL activist and the party’s candidate for Attorney General in 1980:
“All of my involvement with the ND Dem-NPL Party began with Larry Erickson. He and Scott Anderson sat us McCarthy activists down and explained what it would take for us to get the party to endorse Gene McCarthy. That didn’t happen, of course, but we won Cass County overwhelmingly and that certainly made everyone sit up and take notice. Lots of wonderful things followed, including proportional representation on the national convention delegation — ND was way ahead of the national party on this issue and we had Larry to thank for that. He seemed beyond enthusiastic about all the new young people coming into activism in 1967/68 and he welcomed us wisely and warmly.”
From fellow Minot-area farmer and former Democratic-NPL State Representative Bruce Anderson:
“Larry taught me a valuable lesson back when I was a young, wet-behind-the-ears up and coming politician. He would call me a name, a name of someone he considered a light-weight. He was goading me – to be something better. I knew it but I didn’t know what to do. It took me a couple years but I realized I needed to respond and I called him a name of someone he considered not too bright. We never exchanged those names again; I had gained his respect. He was unique, he was coarse but he was a great man. I was once in a conversation with some folks when his name came up and one person looked puzzled. I said, “You’ve never met Larry Erickson?” She said, “I’m not sure.” I said, “Then you haven’t!”
And so Larry Erickson is gone. Seems impossible–he was the strongest man I knew. He’s with his friends, Lee Christensen, Mark Purdy and Richard Backes. The Minot Mafia is all gone now except Gary Williamson–Larry nicknamed him Slim a hundred years ago and it is Slim to this day, and we grieve for him, as well as for Claryce, and his children, Julie, Jon, Vicky and Sue. My memories of Larry will be many, but mostly fishing trips and political conventions. A good man is gone. But the stories will last forever.