Friday I attended the funeral for one of the greatest men I have ever known — George Sinner, governor of the state of North Dakota from 1985 to 1993. I worked for him those years and came to know him and love him, much like a son might love his father. He was just 20 years older than me, so not really a father figure, but it was the timing of when I came to know him that drew me to him.
Just days before he was to become the Democratic-NPL Party’s nominee for governor in the 1984 election, my own father died — March 16, 1984. I was the executive director of the Democratic-NPL Party that year, so our paths crossed regularly, often daily, and when Sinner won, he offered me a job, and I took it.
After Gov. Sinner’s funeral and a thoughtfully provided tuna salad sandwich (not unexpected, of course — most of his family and more than half the mourners were Catholic) at the post-funeral reception, Lillian and I climbed into the back seat of the Buick owned by our friends Jeff and Linda.
And with Jeff driving, heading west on Interstate 94, I laid back in my seat, closed my eyes and thought of THE greatest man I ever knew, on the 34th anniversary of his death. I remembered the details — and that’s something because Lillian will tell you I don’t remember many details anymore — of a trip we took to Fargo together many years ago, in 1966, I think.
As Jeff’s car cruised noiselessly down I-94, I remembered how different that 1966 trip was, in a 1959 Pontiac station wagon on a road that was only partly complete, and we kept shifting from two lanes to four and back, dodging trucks laying cement for the new Interstate highway, bumping our way along at about 55, some 20 mph slower than what Jeff drove Friday.
I smiled as I thought about him, as I do every March 16, and how it still seems unfathomable that he’s been gone that long and what a good man and a good friend he was. Much like George Sinner, to whom we said good-bye March 16, 2018. And now, I’ll have two great men think about on that day, every year.
Four years ago I wrote a piece about my dad on the 30th anniversary of his death. I think I’ll just republish it here because I know my brothers and sisters will like it, and maybe a few of you will as well. And because it makes me feel good to read it too. Here’s the piece I published on March 16, 2014, under the headline “The Greatest Man I Ever Knew.”
The United States entered World War II shortly after the bombing at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Just a few months later, in the spring of 1942, at the close of the Devils Lake Junior College school year, a handful of young North Dakotans, the nucleus of the school’s hockey team, finished their two-year stint at the college, joined the U.S. Navy and headed off to fight the war.
All but one of them — Carlyle James Fuglie, my namesake and my father’s brother, who was killed when a kamikaze pilot struck the deck of his ship — survived the war.
Gathering back in Devils Lake at the end of 1945, at the conclusion of the war, they discussed among themselves what to do with their lives. The one thing they were sure of is that they wanted to spend those lives in North Dakota. One of them mentioned that North Dakota had a shortage of eye doctors — optometrists. Small towns, and even medium sized ones like Dickinson, Valley City and Jamestown, were clamoring for the services of optometrists. So, with their GI Bill of Rights paperwork in hand, they set out for Chicago, where they all enrolled at Northern Illinois College of Optometry.
In Chicago, they shared rooms and apartments, found part-time jobs, rode the el or the bus to and from school and once a year or so rode a real train back to North Dakota to see their families and girlfriends. A few married, to high school sweethearts or girls they had met when they returned home from the war. They all eventually married North Dakota girls.
By now, these young men were approaching their late 20s, time to start a family. Working wives supplemented the income from the GI bill and part-time jobs. By the spring of 1950, they arrived back in North Dakota, diplomas in hand, all wearing the title Doctor of Optometry. And they set about deciding where they were going to live and practice their new profession.
One of them was my dad, by then Dr. O.J. Fuglie. His parents, Ole and Sadie Fuglie, had named him Oliver Joseph, a name he never used once he left home. His mother called him Ollie until the day she died, but she was the only one.
Born with a shock of very blonde — almost white — hair, he earned the nickname “Whitey” as a young boy, and it stuck with him his entire life. I never heard my mother call him anything else. A faded newspaper clipping from the 1930s, describing an act of heroism he performed as a teen-ager, rescuing a young boy from drowning and using his Boy Scout training to perform artificial respiration, saving the boy’s life, called him Whitey Fuglie.
Whitey Fuglie arrived back in North Dakota in the spring of 1950 with a wife and two young children. My sister was an infant and I was 2½ old. He and his Navy/college buddies, all still very close, had been in touch with the North Dakota Optometric Association. They knew which towns in North Dakota were seeking optometrists. They set out exploring, separately now, to see where they might set up a practice.
Whitey borrowed his brother-in-law’s car — he didn’t own one of his own — and he and my mom drove to three towns: Grafton, Ellendale and Hettinger, leaving the grandmas in charge of the kids for a few days.
In Hettinger, they were greeted by the president of the Chamber of Commerce, a local carpenter named Floyd Peterson. He showed them around town, pointing out that half of Main Street was now paved and the other half would be before another winter arrived. And once that was done, they would be starting on the rest of the streets in town.
Hettinger was bustling in the postwar economy, farming was good, jobs were available, houses were being built. Hettinger had a population of about 1,700, but there were another 400 or 500 farm families within a 30 miles radius or so, who did their business in Hettinger.
Hettinger had two doctors and two dentists, but no optometrist, and the town was about to begin building what would become Hettinger Community Memorial Hospital, actually paid for, built and owned by the community. That appealed to my mother, who had finished nurse’s training at Mercy Hospital School of Nursing in Devils Lake before she married my dad in 1946.
Hettinger was a thriving town, a tourist town in the summer because of its location on U.S. Highway 12, the most popular route from Minneapolis to Seattle before the construction of the Interstate Highway system. It had seven gas stations, five of them right on the highway within about four blocks of each other, and two drugstores that sold postcards with scenes of the town printed on them. There were three restaurants, two hotels, five car dealerships, two women’s clothing stores, a men’s store, a shoe store, three hardware stores, a dry cleaners, a two-lane bowling alley, a movie theater and four grocery stores. It also had a nine-hole, sand green golf course and a lake on the south edge of town, backed up behind a dam built on Flat Creek by the railroad 40 years earlier to provide water for the steam engines. The lake had panfish in it. My dad was both a golfer and a fisherman, so the town had some appeal. But most importantly, Hettinger sat in prime pheasant country, and my dad was a hunter. A pheasant hunter.
Hettinger had a newspaper, and the publisher had prospered a bit and owned a building on Main Street where his newspaper was located on the ground floor, and there were a couple of offices upstairs. One of the offices was home to a dentist. The other was vacant in that fall of 1950.
“Dr. Fuglie,” said D.J. Shults, the newspaper publisher, “you can use that office, and don’t worry about paying me now — you can pay me when you get going.” Well, that was one problem solved, if Dr. Fuglie was to choose Hettinger. The second problem was, where to live.
“We can help with that, too,” said Chamber President Peterson. “Ed Arnold, who has the Oldsmobile dealership, has an apartment in his basement that no one is living in right now. Let’s go see him.” Second problem solved.
“What kind of car are you driving?” Ed asked young Dr. Fuglie as they were standing outside the house, just a block from Arnold’s Garage, where he sold his Oldsmobiles. Dr. Fuglie explained that he had just gotten out of college and didn’t own a car yet. “Well, we can fix that,” Ed said. “When you get here, you can just use one of mine until you get on your feet.”
An office. An apartment. A car. Just about enough to close the deal. Hettinger desperately wanted an optometrist. An optometrist was just one more family in town, but it would save people a trip to Bowman, N.D., or Lemmon, S.D., when they had vision problems. And an optometrist was one more reason for farmers to come to town, and when they came, they would shop. They’d buy groceries, clothes, hardware, and, yes, Oldsmobiles. This, in 1950, was how economic development was done.
I never learned what the folks in Grafton and Ellendale offered. I can only guess it was something similar. But I know what they did not offer: Pheasants. It was pheasants that closed the deal. Everything else being equal, pheasant hunting won.
Young Dr. Fuglie borrowed $10,000 from a relative to set up his optometric practice, loaded what few possessions he and his wife had into his brother-in-law’s pickup truck, moved to Hettinger, hauled his equipment up the steps to his new office above D.J. Shults’ newspaper shop and planted his wife and two children and a bit of furniture in Ed Arnold’s basement. I remember a picture of him standing beside that new borrowed Oldsmobile, grinning ear to ear. He could afford to buy it six months later.
His business card read “Dr. O.J. Fuglie, Optometrist.” Under his name, he had the printer run his little advertising pitch through the press twice, the second time offsetting it just a tiny bit so the letters appeared fuzzy. It read: “If this appears blurred and hard to read, hurry in and have your eyes examined.” Then, under that, in clear type, it said “We get more darned patients this way.”
His new Hettinger friends, or course, wanted to know what O.J. stood for. He said to forget it, just call me Whitey. Later, he became better known as “Doc.” Never O.J. or Ollie or Oliver. Just Doc or Whitey.
The result of all that, of course, is that I got to grow up in southwest North Dakota, where there were pheasants aplenty. I grew up golfing, hunting and fishing and still do.
Each fall, some of Dad’s high school/junior college/U.S. Navy/optometry school buddies, having become successful practicing optometrists scattered around the state, showed up to hunt pheasants with their buddy, Whitey, who had landed in the best place of all. They maintained their friendships all their lives. Eventually, they brought their sons with them, and I had hunting partners of my own age.
Like my dad, who died 30 years ago today, I’m pretty sure they are all gone now. But they all lived good lives and raised good families, in places they chose to live, thanks to that day in 1945 when they sat down and decided to become optometrists. As professionals, they became community leaders.
My dad repaid the kindness of the town a hundredfold. He was commander of the American Legion Post, first president of the brand-new Eagles Lodge in Hettinger, Chamber of Commerce president, a scoutmaster for more than 20 years (he was awarded the Silver Beaver, Scouting’s highest award, late in his life for a lifetime devoted to Boy Scouts), president of the Park Board, a volunteer fireman — I can’t tell you how many suits he ruined, dashing from his office to the fire hall without changing — those were the days I’m sure my mom called him something other than Whitey), and a town constable (there were several volunteer constables to help the police chief when he needed it — I remember the night my dad had to help arrest a friend and deer hunting buddy of his who, in a fit of rage, had shot his wife when he caught her cheating on him, and it was my dad’s presence that allowed the arrest to take place peaceably).
During his tenure on the Park Board, he oversaw the draining and dredging of Mirror Lake and restocking it with fish. He helped design and build the new golf course. He was president of the Rod and Gun Club, the local sportsman’s organization. He was blessed with type O blood, and thus was a universal donor, and was awakened many nights to come to the hospital to give blood to an accident victim or a surgery patient who needed blood, earning a “gallon donor” badge many times over.
Whitey Fuglie was a remarkable man. I will never forget the horror of that morning, March 16, 1984, when my sister called to say he had died in his sleep at just 62 yeas old. And I will never forget the stoicism of my mother, who outlived him by 25 years. Phyllis Fuglie was an independent woman, a registered nurse who worked all her life while raising seven children (well, she had a lot of help raising them from her amazing husband) and who carried on after being widowed at 59, ever grateful to that husband who had led her to southwest North Dakota.
He’s been gone 30 years today, and I still think of him often. I talked of him with Jeff this week when we were ice fishing, remembering how much I hated freezing out there on those lakes when I was a kid because my dad would never leave until the sun went down — he loved winter sunsets (and also that last bite of the day at twilight, I later realized when I came to actually like ice fishing myself). But I can’t forget to this day how he would stand there and look across the frozen tundra as the sun dipped below the hills and say “Isn’t that beautiful, Jim?” and I would say “Brrrrr. Let’s go home, Dad.”
I could tell Doc Fuglie stories ‘til the cows come home. Maybe someday I will. Today, I’m just going to drink a can or two of Old Milwaukee, his favorite beer, and remember the greatest man I ever knew.
Footnote: One Doc Fuglie story.
I came home from my own stint in the Navy in the spring of 1972 to discover that my dad had already signed me up for membership in the American Legion. I was visiting my folks in Hettinger, not long after I arrived back here, and Dad said there was a Legion meeting that night and I should come and meet the fellow Legionnaires. I said sure.
The meeting was at the Legion Club, which had two rooms — a large meeting room and a bar room. As the meeting was winding down, that year’s commander introduced me as Johnson Melary Post 115’s newest member and asked if I wanted to say a few words. I said sure.
This was the spring of 1972. George McGovern was running for president of the United States. He had just issued a call for amnesty for draft dodgers who had gone to Canada to avoid the draft. I rose to my feet and launched into a little speech about why we should bring them back and offer amnesty. Future doctors and lawyers and optometrists and maybe even a future president of the United States. Bring them back and make them productive members of our society. I was pretty passionate. I had just done four years in the Navy, including two tours of Vietnam, and thought I had a platform on which to stand to justify my position. I was wrong.
About two minutes in, I began to hear noises. First feet stamping, then some quiet boos, then louder, then “Sit down and shut up.” Chagrined, I stopped, politely thanked them for their time and walked out of the meeting room, into the barroom, sat down at the end of the bar and ordered a beer.
Shortly, the meeting ended and Legionnaires, men of my father’s generation, men I had known all my life, my father’s friends, began trickling out of the meeting room into the bar. Every one of them walked by me silently to the other end of the bar and began drinking and visiting. Except my dad.
He stopped where I was and sat down beside me. We were the only two at that end of the bar, a good gap separating us from the rest of the crowd. He ordered a beer. Then he turned to me, put his arm around my shoulders and said, “Well, son, that was a pretty dumb thing to do.” I said I realized that, and apologized.
“Don’t apologize,” my father, a lifelong Democrat (yes, that’s where I got it), said. “You’re right. You just picked the wrong audience.”
We finished our beers, alone, just the two of us, and went home.