JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Of License Plates And Things

Taking a break from picking on refinery companies, I decided to lighten up today and talk about fun things like license plates.

Way back in 1992, the North Dakota Legislature and Gov. George Sinner agreed that it was time the state got a new design for our license plates. The license plate we had been using for five years featured the word “Centennial” on it because we were going through our state’s Centennial year in 1989. The Centennial being over with, we needed a new license plate.

I’ve written about this before. I was the North Dakota Tourism director at the time, and my friend, Bruce Larson, was the Motor Vehicle registrar. He asked me if I wanted to help design the new plate — maybe we could use it to promote North Dakota.  We teamed up with an artist friend of mine, the late Burt Calkins, and adapted his painting “Two Sentinels” — a bison standing in front of Sentinel Butte — as the first iteration of what is still the basic design of the state’s plates.

We had some sample designs made, looked them over and finally settled on one.

When the final design was selected and the plates were ready to be issued, Bruce sent a memo around to all the state agency heads via interagency mail (the precursor of e-mail in the State Capitol) announcing that he was going to issue a special series of the plates that started with ND, followed by up to 4 digits. He said anyone who wanted one could sign up and a plate would be held for them until their registration fee came due. It was a pretty small perk for us state employees, but it was a perk.

ND 18 on what Lillian calls my “bucket of bolts.” When I die, I’ve told her to just park it on a side street somewhere with the key in it and hope someone takes it.
ND 18 on what Lillian calls my “bucket of bolts.” When I die, I’ve told her to just park it on a side street somewhere with the key in it and hope someone takes it.

Of course, there was a scramble to get the lowest number possible. I called Bruce and said “Hey, old buddy, how about ND 1 for me?” He laughed and replied that he was going to hold on to numbers 1 through 10 for elected officials, but he’d get me the lowest number possible.

I got ND 18. I was pretty happy with that. I’ve still got it on my 2005 Jeep, the sixth car it’s been on.

Sometimes it gives people pause. I get some second looks. I don’t see a lot of those ND plates around any more.

Lillian likes to tell the story of the day we were driving around Manitoba a few years back and spotted a Pick-Your-Own Juneberry farm, so we stopped and filled up our cooler with Juneberries. We weren’t thinking about the possibility that we might not be able to bring fresh produce back into the U.S.

But as we neared the border, we started sweating it out — we had spent quite a bit on those berries and could already taste the Juneberry pie. We pulled up to the Customs window, and the Customs officer said,“Hey, what’s up with the ND 18 license plate?” I replied with a smile “Oh, there were 17 people more important than me working in the Capitol.”

Figuring that I must be someone at least 18th-most important in North Dakota government, and therefore trustworthy, he waved us through without looking into our cooler. We thanked Bruce Larson as we drove away. And when we were eating Juneberry pie.

Well, anyway, getting to the point of this story. My buddy and fishing partner, Jeff, who at the time was the Deputy Agriculture commissioner,  was assigned ND 79 that first year. I kidded him about being so low in importance for years, as he moved that plate from one of his hunting vehicles to the next. Then one day a couple of years ago, when I arrived at his house to go fishing he said, “Fuglie, come here,” and waved me over to his garage. There, on the back of his new Buick, was the license plate ND 17. Damn!  One number more important than mine.

I asked him how he got it, and he said the new system at DOT lets you go search for anything you want on a personalized plate, and he found it, and knew it would just piss me off if he took it, so he did. Damn again! He’s been rubbing it in ever since.

Meanwhile, a few years ago, when it was time for Lillian to renew the registration on our (her) Toyota Highlander, she went searching and found out she could get MRSND18. It was actually kind of cool when the two vehicles were parked side by side — ND18 and MRSND18.

But when there was no frame of reference for MRSND18, people started asking her if she was “Mrs. North Dakota in 2018.” An honest assumption, I’d say. She tired of that pretty quickly, so this year when it was time to renew, I went searching in the database, and asked if ND 16 was available, to outdo Jeff. Nope. I kept searching and found out ND 10 wasn’t taken, though. Remembering 30 years ago when my friend Bruce said he was holding on to 1 through 10, I guessed that I might not get it, but I applied for it anyway, and put down ND 11 as a second choice. And ND 19 was also available, so I put that down as a third choice, figuring that might be the best I could do, but having both 18 and 19 , consecutive numbers, would be OK, even it if didn’t whip Jeff’s ass.

This week, Lillian saw the postman coming up the driveway with a big brown envelope in his hand. She ran out and greeted him, grabbed the envelope, and there, showing through the glassine on the front of the package was ND 10! Hah!

Lillian and ND 10.
Lillian and ND 10.

We grabbed tools, opened the garage doors, and put the plates on the Highlander. Then we took a photo and texted it to Jeff with a note: “TAKE THAT!”

I bet we can smuggle most anything through the Canadian border now. If the Canadians ever let us back into their country again.

FOOTNOTE: Former North Dakota Lt. Gov. Wayne Sanstead used to tell a delightful story about license plates. He was assigned plate No. 5 for some reason when he held that office. He said he and Mary Jane were on a driving vacation in the South and decided to stop and get gas at the gas station owned by Billy Carter, the brother of Jimmy, who was president at the time.

When the attendant came out to put gas in his car (remember when they used to do that?) he looked at Wayne’s license plate and asked, “How did you get that license plate number?”

Wayne replied “Oh, I was the last one to apply.”

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