Why a Sesquicentennial Matters

Yesterday was North Dakota’s 125th birthday. Officially it is called a sesquicentennial. I am only going to try to spell that correctly once. There was a grand party at the state’s Heritage Center, which celebrated the grand opening of its new $50 million facelift. Words fail me trying to describe it. I can only say “Wow!” And thanks to those responsible.

There were a lot of people there with puffed up chests, taking a measure of credit for the new building, like Al Carlson, John Hoeven, Jack Dalrymple and Drew Wrigley. There were a few statesmenlike former Governors, including Ed Schafer, Allen Olson, who presided over the grand opening of the original heritage center nearly 35 years ago, and George Sinner, who presided over the state’s Centennial 25 years ago. Deceased former Governors Art Link and Bill Guy were represented by family members. Hoeven, now a Senator, and fellow Senator Heidi Heitkamp showed up. It was a grand party. Current (and soon to be retired) Historical Society Director Merl Paaverud, incoming Director Claudia Berg, Historical Society fundraisers Virginia Nelson, Bill Schott and Marlo Sveen and members of the State Historical Board and State Historical Society Foundation board, spent the day thanking people. There’s a lot of private money invested on this building, and they were at the front of that effort.

There was one person conspicuous by his absence—the man I think is probably most responsible for the project: State Representative Bob Martinson. Martinson shepherded the Center’s appropriation through the Legislature, as he has done on many other projects, but it would have been out of character for Bob to be there. He doesn’t take credit for stuff. He just gets stuff done. The good feeling he gets from that is his reward. He’ll probably be there today or tomorrow to have a look at what he convinced his fellow Legislators and a couple Governors  to pay for. Next time you see Bob on the street, or in the Capitol hallways, just grab his hand and say “Thanks, Bob.” He’ll know what you mean.

Meanwhile, probably a couple thousand people went through the new exhibits and listened to, and watched, the entertainment. People drove in from all over the state, and flew in from all over the country. At the end of the evening, as I was departing the building, I ran into a contingent of 7 or 8 people from my hometown of Hettinger. They were preparing for the long two-hour drive back home in the dark, but they were ecstatic about being there. There wasn’t a one of them younger than me, but they had loaded up a couple of cars and joined the fun.

And there was an incident at the end of the day which warmed my heart, and showed me why events like this matter. I wrote about it last night on Facebook, but for my Luddite friends who don’t do Facebook, I want to retell it here.

The last official event of the day was a concert by my friend Gene Veeder from Watford city, and his daughter Jesse Veeder Scofield. Gene, who plays in a cowboy band back home on Saturday nights, brought his guitar and his harmonica, mostly to accompany and harmonize with his daughter, a rising star in the field of Americana music. They played a bunch of songs Jesse wrote and has recorded. Jesse is the new Chuck Suchy of North Dakota, I have decided. Chuck, our state’s “Centennial Troubadour” in 1989, played earlier in the day, also at a key time, just before the official 125th birthday party speechifying. Chuck doesn’t have to step aside yet, but when he’s ready, Jesse is ready to fill his shoes as North Dakota’s premier singer/songwriter.

Jesse and Gene played their way through about an hour of wonderful songs written and recorded by Jesse, mostly about North Dakota (much like Suchy’s music), and then a wonderful thing happened.

To close the show, and end the day, Jesse said they were going to play a medley of familiar songs, and invited the audience to sing along. They did, quietly, to “Red River Valley” and “Down in the Valley,” and as Jesse played the first few bars of “Home on the Range,” I glanced over at the big old cowboy sitting just in front of me and to my right. We were off to the right side of the auditorium, and had to look a bit to the left to watch the show, so I could see his face pretty clearly if I looked his way. As Jesse started in with “Oh, give me a home . . .” I could see tears running down both of his cheeks. He glanced around quickly, in a bit of embarrassment, I suppose, to see if anyone noticed, then removed his glasses and rubbed both eyes. I thought, that’s exactly what is supposed to happen on a day like this. Happy 125th birthday, North Dakota.

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