What Larry Woiwode Did

Why not? Why not scribble down some thoughts about Larry Woiwode. Nobody else seems to be doing that. He deserves better. Larry was one of those people who drifted in and out of my life. Our meetings were almost always by chance. The last was a couple years ago in the parking lot at Menard’s in Bismarck. It delayed his entrance into the store and my departure by ten minutes as we reminisced. Ten really good minutes.

I think of him way more often than he thinks of me, because I walk by bookshelves in our library every day with a dozen or so of his books on them, and I glance down from time to time to his shelf (near the bottom—his name starts with W) and two big bright dust jackets jump out at me—his 600-page masterpiece Beyond the Bedroom Wall, and Aristocrat of the West, his biography of Harold Schafer, the book that brought us together thirty years ago.

My favorite Woiwode photo–in the Bad Lands, not so long ago.

Together in a booth in a pretty dark corner of a café in Glen Ullin, North Dakota, in 1993, feeling each other out for the first time, me, a PR flack for the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation on a mission to find someone to write a biography of Harold Schafer, and he, to consider a trip into the world of nonfiction after a pretty storied twenty-year career as a successful writer of fiction.

Glen Ullin. Halfway between Burt, in Hettinger County, where he was finishing up raising a family on a small farm he called “Anchor West,” and writing in an attic in an outbuilding, and Bismarck, headquarters of that foundation, the successor to Harold Schafer’s Gold Seal Company, formed to manage the company’s tourist assets in the North Dakota Bad Lands town of Medora.

I was offering a pile of research compiled in an earlier fruitless effort to chronicle the life of the state’s most famous salesman, and the possibility of a paycheck, something he hadn’t had for a few years.

He dived right in, heading for the storeroom of the women’s dormitory in Medora, as he described it, “. . . a basement room that looked as big as a basketball court. It was piled with boxes of newspaper clippings and magazines and photos and mementos and home movies and videos and news films featuring Harold. My confidence in putting together a book in a year as I’d been requested to do, sank so low it wouldn’t fill a cowboy’s boot.”

Here’s how he described his experience writing the book, in a later paperback of his own titled Words for Readers and Writers:

At the beginning of 1999 I sent off, for the last time, a biography that took four years to finish. I had estimated it would take two. During the third year, the manuscript rose to a thousand pages and finally ended up at five hundred. My experience should be a warning to anybody who has worked in nearly every form of writing, as I had, except biography, and is tempted to try.

I was tempted because of a commission, and my interest in the subject of the biography. He was the founder of Gold Seal, the distributor of Snowy Bleach and Mr. Bubble for starters—able to boast that every American household at one time held two of his products, based on the number of sales.  He shook hands with or befriended every American president from Herbert Hoover to George H.W. Bush. His son Ed served two terms as governor of North Dakota. Above all, he was a Christian gentleman who gave away millions to anybody who asked: Harold Schafer.

I’ll admit I had been a bit optimistic and impatient in my request for such a short deadline, but Harold was getting old, and he’d had some health problems . . . but it turned out okay. The book took five years before it was finally edited and published, and Harold lived to see it in print, although he signed my copy from his hospital bed not long before he died. The book, signed by two of North Dakota’s most important men, both winners of the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award, North Dakota’s highest honor, is among my most prized possessions.

Larry lived long, past age 80, finishing his working life as a professor and writer in residence at the University of Jamestown and the University of Mary. His death last Thursday brought scant notice except from friends on Facebook. There’s just no institutional memory in North Dakota’s news media these days. I expect someone will catch up with his story this week and give him the front page coverage he deserves.   

Not long ago I finished reading his latest book, The Dignity of Grace, a biography of the late Sister Thomas Welder, a friend of both of ours who died in 2020, a marvelous tribute to one of North Dakota’s great educators and faith leaders. It was fitting that the only two biographies in Larry’s 16-book bibliography were of Sister Thomas and Harold Schafer, because the two were close friends.  

In the book, Sister Thomas told the story that Harold never told, about Harold buying a big house to serve as a home for the nuns of the Annunciation Priory. Later she served on the board of Harold’s Foundation, and created the Harold Schafer Leadership Center at the University of Mary, where she served as president. And, she joined them as a member of the Rough Rider Hall of Fame in 2004.

Now, the three great North Dakotans are gone from here, but together somewhere, I suspect. I miss them all. North Dakota misses them all. Three of the kindest people I ever knew. It took Larry’s death last week to make me think of the three of them again.   

There’s going to be a service for Larry this Tuesday, May 3, at 11 a.m. at the New Hope Lutheran Church in Jamestown. Carole and the kids will be in our prayers. I could share a hundred or so links to great things written about Larry, but I especially like this review of one of Larry’s books, A Step From Death, written by the Minnesota author Bill Holm, who you might remember from his numerous appearances on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion. Holm wrote this review shortly before his own untimely death in 2009, and the Minneapolis Tribune printed it some months later.

            As for Larry’s writing, well, there’s just too much to share. The footlong collection of his books on my shelf might be the best literary space in America. Much of it is what Larry called “autobiographical fiction,” a term I hadn’t heard before he used it to describe his work in an early conversation. Go to the Library or a bookstore. Grab anything he wrote. You can’t go wrong.

So long, old friend.

Here are the three friends’ Rough Rider Hall of Fame portraits.

9 thoughts on “What Larry Woiwode Did

  1. What Larry did, I think😉. Whenever I was around him, he made me know he was intrested in me…and my family. He loved God, God the LORD, his God.

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  2. His passing did deserve more notice in the state’s media. I posted my 2000 profile from the Star Tribune.

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  3. Ditto to much of this … Larry was generous to me with this time and advice on writing, and we also crossed paths numerous times since I first met & befriended him at the UND Writers Conference in 1976. Thanks for sharing your reflections on him.

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  4. Thank you, Jim! You provided a unique perspective on Larry Woiwode and his biography of Harold Schafer.
    Chuck, thanks for posting your 2000 Minneapolis Star Tribune article on Woiwode. I am not on Facebook. Could you post the article here on The Prairie Blog?

    Also, the institutional memory of the newspaper industry has been impaired here in Wisconsin, too. I am retired but1 serve on the local daily newspaper’s editorial advisory board.

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  5. Fuglie, lovely tribute, as you are wont to do. You have ease of composition that matches your demeanor: quiet, contemplative, and sincere, with flair where it most shines.
    I was glued to a reading of Beyond the Bedroom Wall that I picked up at random in a bookstore in Zurick in the mid-seventies and spent consecutive nights devouring it in a fifth-floor walk-up hotel on the left bank in Paris. 5$ a night, no heat, February. An enthralling and life-changing read for a kid who grew up on a sheep farm in North Dakota, not unlike Pettibone, the model setting for the family in Beyond…
    Years later met Woiwode in Bismarck, played pool with him, he was too good for me at that too…
    Lovely man.

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  6. oh the words are there, “spooled” as Larry would say, and then unspooling and the Word in the words as well, and they are private semi-private, some poems, memories, on social media, in heads, in small conversations, and what do you do in a state that is in a state like our own? what do you do with poets that write with horses, cattle, students, tractors, the land and sky when the eye our controlling interest is in the big score, the moola and the shine and glitter? what does anyone do with a poet anyway? the best they could do would be to read the poet’s words–but that is not really how this world seems to work–so God takes Larry in peace to the great place of holy joy and laughter, and words go on and in the words, his words and the words of others–the Word will have its day–as will the words of Sitting Bull, Thomas McGrath, and many many singing Dakotans whose names we barely know–

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  7. I had the pleasure of working with him in District 39. He was a very talented and kind gentleman.

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  8. Thanks for this Jim. Never met him, but saw him in the New Yorker and, and read Beyond the Bedroom Wall in 1975, and was blown away it was so good. Was proud that a North Dakota guy could write something that great, very moving.

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