Calm was the day in late July
And bright was the sun across the sky
But inside his chest the calm had broken
Governor Sinner had started croakin’.
I laughed the first time I read that, and I’m still laughing every time I think about it. It’s a poem written by a sixth grader from Turtle Lake about Governor George Sinner’s heart attack in 1991.
It’s a hard day not to be sad, but I’ve been having happy thoughts all day about “The Sinner Years.” There were so many good times over the decade—1982 through 1992—that I was lucky enough to be around George Sinner. So today I want to share some happy stories, and I hope you too will think of happy days around one of North Dakota’s great leaders. He started croakin’ on that July day back in 1991, but it took him a long time to get the job done. Here’s a few of my memories.
HUNTING WITH THE GOVERNOR
Bud Sinner was not an accomplished hunter—it’s just something Red River Valley farmers didn’t do a lot– but after he moved to Bismarck, he loved getting out in the field.
So whenever I had an outdoors writer or outdoors television show personality in the state to do a hunting story, I’d call and ask him if he’d like to go hunting with us. He almost always said yes. Not only did he enjoy it, but he saw the promotional value in it for the state. And of course the writers and TV producers loved being able to do a story about going hunting with a governor.
One day I had a big-time writer named Thayne Smith in the state, and Wayne Tanous, a friend of mine and lobbyist for MDU, had arranged for us to go hunt at a ranch east of Flasher. The Governor came along. Going down Highway 6 south of Mandan, I was riding shotgun in Wayne’s car and the Governor and Thayne were visiting in the back seat. The Governor had his big old ten-gauge single barrel shotgun with him (I swear that old monster was six feet long and weighed 15 pounds) and I heard him bragging to Thayne “I really like shooting this old gun. It shoots straight. I was out with two of my boys a few days ago, and we got our limit. I got five of them and the boys got one between them.”
My heart sank into my boots. The pheasant limit was two then, but “party hunting” was not allowed (although most everybody did it), and the Governor of North Dakota had just admitted he shot 2 ½ times his limit to a writer who was doing a story for Outdoor Life or Field and Stream or some big magazine like that.
Well, when we got to the Meyer ranch near Flasher, I took Thayne aside and said that the Governor doesn’t really hunt all that much, and I hoped there wouldn’t be anything about “how good that old 10-gauge worked” in his story. Thayne just smiled and gave me a wink and said “Nah, we all do it.” Whew.
On another trip down in the same country, I took another big-time writer, Tom Huggler, to Vern Fredrick’s place and the Governor came along. There was a little snow on the ground, and the Governor didn’t own any hunting boots, so he came in street shoes with four-buckle overshoes on. We were walking along Louse Creek when a pheasant got up and the Governor shot it. It landed across the creek, which was pretty narrow at that point, and he walked up to the creek bank, set his gun down, backed up a couple steps, and took a mighty leap to get across the creek. He didn’t make it, and landed in ankle-deep water, just deep enough to get a little water inside his overshoes.
He was game, though. I handed him his gun and he picked up the bird and hunted that side of the creek until we got to a crossing. And hunted a while longer with wet feet. When the story appeared in a magazine, it said, tactfully, “the Governor cleared two feet of a three-foot creek.”
Another time we were hunting the same ranch with Tony Dean, who was doing one his outdoors television shows. Our host, Vern Fredrick, was taking us from one end of the ranch to the other. Tony and the Governor were riding in the back of Vern’s beat-up old pickup and the cameraman and I were following behind. As we were driving along slowly on a bumpy two-track trail, a pheasant got up beside the pickup. The Governor raised up his old ten-gauge and, as we watched in horror, shot at it from the back of the moving pickup. By some miracle, he hit it and it dropped into the field.
He screamed at Vern “Stop, I got it!” Tony leaned out around to the cab of the pickup and said “Don’t stop, Vern. It was a hen.” Vern kept going. Tony never mentioned on his show that our Governor broke two laws that day—shooting from a vehicle and shooting a hen.
THE DAY WE LOST THE GOVERNOR
Back in the 1970s and 80s, North Dakota was part of a five-state tourism consortium with South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska, called the Old West Trail Foundation. Governors were pretty interested in the tourism industry in those days, and from time to time we’d have a “Tourism Summit” and the five governors would attend. They were usually held at some nice destination resort and it was a chance for the five of them to get together and visit and relax.
One year we were in the Black Hills, and in the afternoon we had some kind of event up at Mount Rushmore. Governor Sinner’s driver that trip was Bob Jansen, his press secretary. There must have been some kind of big dignitary there, because South Dakota Governor George Mickelson, a good friend of Sinner’s although they wore different political stripes, made a dramatic arrival with someone important, in front of the four faces, in an Army helicopter.
When the ceremony was over we all headed back to Rapid City to our headquarters hotel, the historic Alex Johnson. Shortly after I got to my room, Bob Jansen called me and said he couldn’t find the Governor, and asked if he had ridden back from Mt. Rushmore with me. I said no, I thought he was riding with you.
Oh, shit, we both thought, we left the Governor up at Mount Rushmore. But we didn’t panic. Not right away. Bob said he would go look around the hotel and I said I would make some calls, and if we couldn’t find him, we’d notify the Highway Patrol. I called the front desk, told them who I was, and asked if they would put me through to Governor Mickelson’s room. They did, and Gov. Mickelson answered the phone. I told him who I was, and said we had misplaced our Governor, and asked if he had seen Gov. Sinner.
“Oh, yeah, he hopped on the chopper with me and we’re just sitting here having a martini,” Mickelson replied. I thanked him and ran out of the room for the elevator to find Bob and tell him where the Governor was. Later, at the banquet, Gov. Sinner apologized to both of us for not telling us he was going back on the helicopter. And told us we should probably keep a better eye on him.
In the early spring of 1984, four giant Democrats—Bud Sinner, Art Link, Buckshot Hoffner and Walt Hjelle– were running for the Democratic-NPL endorsement for Governor. They were criss-crossing the state, appearing at each of the District Conventions seeking delegate support. Fairly early in the process, they were all in Bismarck for a district convention, and the five of us were gathered just outside the door after they were done speaking (I was executive director of the Democratic-NPL Party at the time). Link was being driven around in a big van by Bob Valeu, but the other three were driving themselves. They were all headed for another convention, in Beulah, I think, and then coming back to Bismarck for the night. Sinner said something like “Guys, it’s nuts for us to take four cars up there and back. Why don’t you all just ride with me?”
So they all jumped into Sinner’s big blue Ford station wagon and hit the road. That story got out, and the legend spread across the country that in North Dakota, there were four candidates for Governor and they were all traveling around the state together campaigning. I don’t know how many more times they did that, but it was a great story at the time. Of course, they were all great friends—they had served together in the Legislature (all but Link were actually in the Legislature at the time), and had all been involved in party politics for many years—so they didn’t find anything unusual about it. But it made for a great story.
A $40,000 NEWSPAPER
Sinner won the nomination at the convention, of course, on the third ballot, and set about campaigning against Gov. Allen Olson. Late in the campaign, polls showed a very close race, and we were trying to figure out what we could do to tip the balance in our favor. We thought a tabloid newspaper inserted in every weekly and daily paper in the state would make a difference. The only problem was, that was going to be expensive. Now, Gov. Sinner wrote about this in his memoir, Turning Points, but his recollection of it is different than mine. So I’m just going to tell my version. What I remember is, George Gaukler, the state Democratic-NPL Chairman, and I met with him over coffee and proposed the newspaper idea. He said the campaign was out of money. George asked if he could dig in his pocket. How much would it cost? About $40,000. Uffda. There was a long, agonizing pause. He rubbed his forehead. He rubbed his chin. He shuddered a little. Finally, he said “Okay, but you guys have to tell Janie.”
We agreed. We produced an 8-page tabloid over at John Maher’s newspaper shop over the weekend, had it printed, and Jim Sinner and some of his friends loaded it up and drove it to every weekly and daily newspaper office in the state. Bud said later if there was a secret weapon in the campaign, that was it. We all agreed later it was the best $40,000 investment Bud Sinner ever made. And I think we raised the money after the campaign to pay him back.
A GARY HART PROBLEM
As a result of attending National Governor’s Association meetings in the 1980s, Governor Sinner had gotten to know a little-known governor, Bill Clinton, from Arkansas. And he liked him. So in the spring of 1990, when Clinton was exploring a presidential run, Sinner invited him to speak at our state Democratic-NPL convention.
Before the speech, Sinner invited some of us into a private room to meet Gov. Clinton. It was just 15 or 20 minutes, but we all got a chance to visit a bit, and then we went out and listened to the speech.
And afterwards, Gov. Sinner and I crossed paths somewhere at the convention, and he asked “What did you think of Gov. Clinton?” I replied that I liked him, a lot. “Yeah, I do too,” the Governor said, “but I’m afraid he has a little bit of a Gary Hart problem.” Well, turns out he made Gary Hart look like a Boy Scout. But he was a darn good president.
BAD BULL JOKES
Governor Sinner loved to tell jokes, but he wasn’t very good at telling them, and he had a hard time remembering them, so he just told the same ones over and over. He was not a man given to foul language, or to dirty jokes, but he felt his “bull jokes” were pretty risqué, and I guess they were, to him. I’ll try to write them like he told them. God knows I heard them enough times to get them verbatim. (His family and everyone who ever worked for him is groaning now. You’re excused.)
“A fellow over in Minnesota had a prize bull, one of the best in the country, so one Sunday afternoon Janie and I loaded the kids in the station wagon and went to see his bull. (Sinner operated a cattle feedlot, so he now something about bulls.) We pulled into the yard. It was a hot summer day and there was no air conditioning in cars in those days, so there were kids hanging out every window. The fellow came out to meet us, and I said we were there to take a look his famous bull. He looked over at my car and asked ‘Are all those kids yours?’ I replied that they were. He said ‘You wait here. I’m going to bring that bull out here and have him take a look at you.’”
“A neighbor had a pretty good bull, and I was visiting with him one day and asked what the secret to that bull was. He reached in his pocket and took out a big black pill, and he said “I give him one of these every day.’ I asked him what was in it. ‘I don’t know,’ he said, ‘but they taste a lot like licorice.’”
“I heard a story about this guy who had taken his wife out for a drive one day and was visiting a neighbor who had a really good bull. So they went to take a look. The neighbor bragged, while they were looking, that the bull was so good that sometimes they bred him ten times a day. The wife poked her husband with an elbow and said ‘Did you hear that? Ten times a day!’ The husband turned to the bull’s owner and asked ‘Same cow?’”
The last story I want to tell is about the week North Dakota had two governors. I don’t really have to tell it in full, because I did that a few years ago, and the story is still on my blog, and I’ll just provide a link to it here.
But to summarize: Bud Sinner was elected in November of 1984, to take office in January 1985. Traditionally, Governors here take office the day the Legislature convenes, which is the first Tuesday after January 3. But legally, we learned in 1985, the Governor can take office on the first day of January. Because, bucking tradition, George Sinner took office on January 1 that year. He did so because outgoing Governor Allen Olson had not filled two vacancies on the North Dakota Supreme Court, and Sinner’s advisers convinced him that those were two pretty valuable appointments. So Sinner took the oath of office on New Year’s Day, ensconced himself in the Governor’s Residence (You might recall that Gov. Olson had not lived there, so his kids could stay in the same school they were in before he was elected), and Olson held forth in the Capitol building, until the state’s Supreme Court ruled a day or two later that Sinner was entitled to the office.
The great mystery in all that is why Gov. Olson did not make the two appointments. The chance to appoint even one Supreme Court Justice does not come along very often, much less two at once. Olson had ample time to make two appointments, but never got it done, and Sinner appointed two who Olson would not have chosen. It’s a mystery. Maybe one day Governor Olson will tell us. Meanwhile, it’s a good story and you can go to this old blog post to read it if you want to.
And that’s the end of my reminiscing today. But I won’t stop thinking about my friend Governor Sinner. I’ll see a bunch of you at the funeral in Fargo. Meanwhile, I hope you’ve enjoyed these stories. I hope I got them right. I tried to tell them as I remembered them, but, as a caveat, I’Il quote my friend Mike Jacobs, who no doubt will write about Governor Sinner in his regular Tuesday column in the Grand Forks Herald next week: “Never let history get in the way of a good story.”
“Only those are fit to live who do not fear to die; and none are fit to die who have shrunk from the joy of life and the duty of life. Both life and death are parts of the same Great Adventure.” Theodore Roosevelt
Requiescant in pace – George Albert Sinner 1928-2018
9 thoughts on “Memories of a Great Governor”
Jim … I had heard the one bull story, the one with the kids hanging out of the car, but I couldn’t remember it all. Thanks.
Thanks for the stories!!! Lots of great memories……
He was a great Governor and a great guy.
Maybe it’s just me, but the black pill story is a lot longer and more animated in my re-telling. Great memories, Jim.
The part of the Sinner story that to me was always the most interesting is that most of the Sinner family (George’s brothers) and as I understand it, the generation before and maybe more were Republicans and active Farm Bureau members when that made a difference in ND politics. I never knew George until he and I were active in the political part of American Crystal in the same period. Of course he knew my dad from legislative times. I thought him an OK governor but lacking some vision for the future. As for his political success I always thought a good ND political history book would have been how the Democrats successes of 1984 were a gift from most of the Republicans who were just elected in a sweep of the Democrats in 1980. Of course 1992 proved again in politics success breeds failure, and while outside forces have extended it longer than I expected just watch, the Republicans are heading for a big crash. (If the Dems can ever quit shooting themselves in the foot).
Johnny had a wooden whistle. But it wooden whistle. The he got a steel whistle, but he steel couldn’t whistle. Then he got a tin whistle. NOW he tin whistle ! A poem told to me on a pheasant hunt by Governor George Sinner (circa 1985) JS
Enjoyed your reminiscence about your time with Governor Sinner. There was a controversial ambiguity in ND law regarding when a newly elected Governor officially takes office and the Sinner/Olson situation offered an opportunity for clarification. My legal/AG background probably influenced my decision to use that situation as an opportunity to clarify the law. I communicated my decision and the reasons for it to Bud through intermediaries. Later, in part because most North Dakotans expect their politicians to disagree without being disagreeable, Bud and I resumed the friendly relationship we had before the 1984 election similar to the relationship Governor Link and I had before and after the 1980 election. After Bud left office he invited me to join him for a round of golf during which I thanked him for showing me that my future success would be in something other than ND elective politics. We both laughed and went on with the game. May he rest in peace.
Thanks for sharing your memories, Jim. There are so many great stories about Dad’s adventures. Campaigning in 1984 brought some doozies. I think Dad and Chuck Fleming are probably revisiting them all now and having a load of laughs.
Jim – Thanks for the memories. I was Deputy Director at ND Game & Fish through most of his administration. He would call me at home in the evenings from time to time and we would talk policy and issues but mostly just how to do things right for the people of North Dakota. George Sinner was a great Governor and one of the best human beings I’ve ever had the privilege to know. We can all continue to benefit from the many lessons he taught us. May he rest in peace.