My friend Bill Bowman died. I’m sad about that.
Bill and I both grew up in southwest North Dakota, he on a ranch north of Rhame, and I down the road on state Highway 12 in Hettinger. Our paths first crossed in the 1960s, at Dickinson State College, and they crossed many times more in the 50-plus years since, more frequently after he got into politics and became a state legislator and spent more time in Bismarck.
The last time was about two years ago. Bill spent his life in Bowman County in southwest North Dakota, but he had moved to Mandan, to live in an assisted living facility, after suffering acute kidney failure. The drive from his home in Bowman County to Dickinson for dialysis three days a week was more than he could handle in his weakened condition. So he moved here to be closer to a medical facility.
I learned that he was here from my mother-in-law, Marian Crook, who was living in the same facility, just off the Strip in Mandan. Marian knew Bill well. They lived on neighboring ranches in Slope County, way down in southwest North Dakota, when they were growing up. Marian was older, old enough to be a babysitter, and that’s just what she did when Bill’s parents needed to be away and needed someone to watch after their rambunctious little boys.
In one of those moments my friend, Larry Woiwode, used to call “infinite connections,” I was visiting Marian one day and she asked, “Isn’t Bill Bowman a friend of yours?” I responded that he was, and she said “He’s moved in here.”
She told me his room number. When I left her room, I raced up the steps and knocked on the door. From his recliner, Bill hollered, “Come in.” I did. We greeted each other with smiles. I sat down on a chair across from him.
But this wasn’t the Bill Bowman I knew. The Bill I knew has always been a big, strong man, boisterous and forthcoming. He’d have jumped up and come to the door to greet me. This Bill was an old man, somewhat wan, leaning back in a recliner, watching television, Fox News, I think. (We were friends but didn’t agree much on politics.) He welcomed me into his small, sterile room in an Old People’s Home, with a voice that seemed to be a harsh whisper.
He told me about his medical problem and why he was there, and we visited for an hour or so, talking about old days, politics, mutual friends, Donald Trump — he liked him, I didn’t — and the future of western North Dakota. Bill was a champion for western North Dakota in his nearly 30 years as a legislator. He represented District 39, the largest district in the state, covering most of six counties, larger than the state of Rhode Island. Think of that. He was the senator for an area larger than a whole state.
We laughed about our favorite story about my mom. Mom never forgave Bill for ousting her friend, Rick Maixner, from the state Senate in 1990. She liked the idea of having a friend in the Senate, especially a Democrat. She even had fundraisers at her house for him.
Mom was a resident of District 39 most of her life. She never missed voting in an election. She had been a Republican in her younger years, but Ronald Reagan turned her, and she voted pretty much a straight Democrat ticket after he was elected.
Late in her life, when she was a resident of the Hettinger nursing home, she called me one day and said she had her absentee ballot in front of her, and had a question. That year, 2006, Bill was running unopposed for the state Senate. She said, “I’m looking at the state Senate race, and the only name on the ballot is Bill Bowman. Do I have to vote for HIM?”
I said, “No, mom you can just leave it blank.”
“Oh, thank goodness,” she replied.
Bill roared with laughter when I told him that story in the Great Hall at the Capitol during the 2007 Legislature, loud enough to turn heads on both ends of the Great Hall. “I remember talking to her when I was campaigning at the nursing home,” he said. “She was polite, but she made it perfectly clear she wasn’t voting for me.”
Bill took his job as a state senator seriously. He was there to look out for the 14,000 or so people who lived out in that sparsely populated area of western North Dakota. He didn’t care much about anything that happened east of U.S. Highway 85, except the North Dakota State University Agriculture Department. He was their champion on Senate Appropriations, so much so that last year, after his retirement from the Legislature, they gave him the 2019 NDSU Agribusiness Award and named a building after him on the NDSU campus. You can read a great story about him, including a good biography, here, and watch a wonderful video about his life here.
But mostly Bill went to Bismarck to take care of his district and the people in it. And he was good at it. He got a lot done for western North Dakota, as a senior member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.
He told me he didn’t really enjoy sitting through all those long, boring, number-filled hearings on every state agency’s budget, but his seat on the Appropriations Committee, and his seniority there, was important to District 39, so he tolerated it.
On our last visit, in 2018, Bill was nearing the end of his time in the Legislature. His seat was up and he wasn’t running for re-election after 28 years as a senator. By moving into the assisted living facility just cross the Missouri River from the Capitol, though, he was more easily able to get to interim committee meetings during his final months as a senator.
He was a bit wistful about leaving the Legislature after all those years, but he said he knew his medical condition was going to make it impossible to campaign that year, or to sit through those long days in the Capitol.
He told me he wasn’t planning to stay there long, though, after his interim committee meetings were done that fall. “I didn’t plan to spend my retirement dollars living in an expensive place like this,” he said.
So he moved back to Bowman and rode the Southwest Transport bus to Dickinson three days a week for his dialysis. But by early this summer, his condition had weakened him so that he couldn’t take care of himself any longer. His bus driver told me that the once big, strong man was so thin that “you could count his ribs.”
So he moved to a nursing home in Killdeer, just half an hour’s bus ride to his dialysis unit, instead of the hour and a half from Bowman. His condition worsened as summer progressed, and early this month he was admitted to the hospital in Dickinson. But last week, he told the doctors that he didn’t want to die in a hospital, and he wanted to go back to Killdeer. He did that. A couple of his Bowman friends were on their way to say goodbye to him him there last Saturday afternoon when the call came on their cell phone, somewhere south of Belfield: “Bill’s gone.”
They didn’t get to say goodbye, but they will at 7 p.m. Friday night at a Family and Friends Service at Bowman United Methodist Church. I’m betting a lot of his friends will be there. His family wrote a wonderful obituary, which you can read here.
At the end of our conversation in Mandan two years ago, I asked Bill if he was on a kidney transplant list, to get his health back. I was stunned by the answer I got from this rough and tumble old cowboy.
“Jimmy, I’ve lived my life. I’m not going to take a kidney that could go to some young person with their whole life in front of them.”
It was simply the most genuine, generous statement I’ve ever heard in my life.
So now he’s gone. And somewhere in America, some young person has their whole life in front of them. There are no more words.