JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — The Best Ukrainian Story Ever (Well, At Least My Favorite)

Ukrainians are much on our minds right now, with the Last World War apparently beginning in their country. North Dakota has a smattering of them. I’m going to tell you the best Ukrainian story ever, but first a little background.

Ukraine, Feb. 24, 2022.
Ukraine, Feb. 24, 2022.

Where I grew up in Hettinger, in extreme southwest North Dakota, there were no Ukrainians. We were Germans and Norwegians, with a smattering of Swedes. Hettinger was one of about a dozen towns in extreme southwest North Dakota settled by the railroad — the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad — in the first 10 years of the 20th century, much later than most other parts of the state. U.S. Highway 12, the main road between Chicago and Seattle, followed the railroad across the country. The main difference between the two transportation corridors was that the highway generally went through the middle of each town, and the railroad tracks ran along the edge.

Merchants saw to it that the highway bisected the town, to lure automobile travelers to stop at their stores, restaurants, gas stations and hotels. I remember once North Dakota’s State Highway Department floated the idea of running Highway 12 around the north side of town, and the Chamber of Commerce successfully took up arms to stop that bad idea.

But keeping the railroad out on the edge of town led to the construction of grain elevators and kept the noisy trains and the truck traffic hauling grain to the elevators out of residential and business districts. And the livestock sales rings and hog barns were right beside them, keeping their unpleasant odors relegated to the edge of town.

Settlers to southwest North Dakota came by the trainload, one full of Norwegians, the next full of Germans, and on and on, giving each town and the farmers who shopped in it an ethnic identity. On the east side of my town, between Hettinger and Haynes, the farmers were Germans who milked cows and grew corn to feed them. West of town, between Hettinger and Bucyrus, they were Norwegians, and they grew wheat and raised cattle for beef.

In my high school graduating class, there was not even a hint of an eastern European surname, but I had classmates named Davidson, Ellingson, Erickson, Evenson, Johnson, Kvanvig, Lundahl, Markegard, Olson and Severson from west of town, and Schmaltz, Schmidt, Seifert, Schoeder, Wolf, Zimmerman, Nagel and Miller from east of town.

Even the town itself had a distinguishable ethnic division, with the German Catholics living and building their church north of Highway 12, and the Norwegian  Lutherans on the south side. There was much pinochle played on winter evenings on the north side of town, and much whist on the south side.

One thing is certain. No one in my high school class ever dated a Ukrainian, or even knew one, unless they had met someone at Boys State or Girls State or a state music or speech festival. We certainly never played any sports against any Ukrainians. I’m pretty sure there were no family names ending in “uk” or “iuk” or “enko” when I left Hettinger in 1965.

But there were plenty of Ukrainians not far away, 50 or so miles north of us, in Stark and Billings counties. When I went away to college in Dickinson, and later lived there to work at The Dickinson Press, there were lots of names ending in “uk,” “yk,” and “iuk,” what linguists call “patronymic,” in other words, based on the given name of a father or other male ancestor, much like the “son” on the end of names of all those Norwegian classmates of mine.

Other name endings I discovered from my time in the Ukrainian country of western North Dakota were “enko,” “chuk,” “chak,” and “yshyn.” It was not unusual for me to write a Press story about people like Mike Olienyk, Agnes Palanuk or her son, “Wild Bill” Palanuk, or one of the Charchenko or Baranko or Romanyshyn brothers. I had a landlord named Franchuk, and Zeke Lazorenko made the “Best Manhattans in the West” at the little Missouri Saloon. For a fun afternoon experience, you could wander around staring at the fascinating names on the tombstones at the cemetery at St. Demetrius Church north of Belfield, N.D.

They’re still out there, those Ukrainians. I learned how many a couple of years ago. Hence my favorite Ukrainian story.

Sometime in the last few years, the folks in Medora who run the Medora Musical nightly outdoor show from Memorial Day to Labor Day began giving their cast and crew a couple of nights off each summer (they generally did 100 straight nights) and scheduled concerts in the Burning Hills Amphitheatre for the two nights the show was dark, bringing in bands and artists from all over the country.

One August night when my wife, Lillian, and her sisters were on a summer European vacation, I ventured west to hear a rock band fronted by a returning Belfield native, Brody Dolyniuk. Brody had moved to the West Coast after high school to pursue a musical career and had done pretty well. He was the lead singer and his band was a tribute band which did songs from Queen, The Who, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, among others. They toured the country, fronting real symphony orchestras, in places like Philadelphia, Atlanta, New Orleans, Honolulu, Seattle and Las Vegas. Brody had a really good gig going.

Brody Dolyniuk doing his tribute to Freddy Mercury from Queen.
Brody Dolyniuk doing his tribute to Freddy Mercury from Queen.

Now Brody Dolyniuk was coming home, without the orchestra, to show the folks back in western North Dakota what a kid from Belfield with a funny name to most other parts of the country could accomplish in the music world. 

I’m an old rocker, and with a lineup of hard rock tributes like that, I went into the amphitheater fully expecting to be about the oldest person in a small crowd for a rock show in the Bad Lands. But I was surprised to see a big crowd, probably a thousand people, and it looked like I was about median age. A pretty big and pretty old crowd for a hard rock band playing outdoors a hundred miles from anywhere, in the North Dakota Bad Lands.

The show was great. Brody and his band just rocked the place, and he was a great singer— his Freddy Mercury was as good as Freddy in his heyday with Queen, and the crowd went nuts over his rendition of Robert Plant’s “Stairway To Heaven.”

As the show neared an end, Brody engaged the audience, telling them how great it was for a kid (well, not so much a “kid” anymore — he’s well into his 40s) like him to come home and sing for the home folks because he had been raised just 15 miles down the road in Belfield.

And then he said he saw some folks he knew in the audience, and he said, “OK, everyone whose names end in K, stand up.” The crowd let out a roar and started clapping, as more than half the audience — probably most of Belfield and western Stark Countyn — stood up and puffed out their chests. The rest of us just roared.

The word had spread. Brody’s coming home to sing for us. That explained all the boots and bib overalls and straw hats in the oldest crowd ever to see a rock concert in North Dakota.

“Everyone whose names end in K.” What a great observation. Loyal Ukrainians. I wonder how long he had been waiting to say that. I’m not sure Pink Floyd would go over very big up at St. Demetrius Church, but I bet they’d like Led Zeppelin’s  “Stairway To Heaven.”

And I’m pretty sure they’re praying this week up at St. Demetrius for their fellow Ukrainians back in their home country. We should be, too. You think I was kidding when I called it the “Last World War?”

3 thoughts on “JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — The Best Ukrainian Story Ever (Well, At Least My Favorite)”

  • Martin Fredricks February 24, 2022 at 3:47 pm

    Outstanding. Zeke Lazorenko – there’s a blast from the past. My folks knew him and I remember the name well, if not the man himself.

  • Sarah Vogel February 24, 2022 at 11:50 pm

    I have a Ukrainian story too. When I was Agriculture Commissioner, the “feds” did something that upset many farmers. I can’t remember what it was, but there was general unhappiness and a lot of grumpiness and complaints from the Norwegian farmers, German farmers and Swedish farmers. One day, a very excited farmer called and without giving me his name or location started to complain (as had so many other farmers) but he proposed that he and his friends would be willing blockade the federal interstate highway for the cause. I paused and said, “by the way, would you be Ukrainian?” He said, “yes I am, how did you know?”

    I feel so bad today for these proud, independent and very spirited people in North Dakota and the Ukraine.


  • Michael B Henderson February 28, 2022 at 8:17 pm

    What a wonderful story Jim. I was raised in Scranton where there were just as many Norwegian and German families. But a “smattering” of Easter European names such as Czywczynski and Palcweski. My father hailed from Belfield with a name ending in k as well – Grosulak. Unlike the Polish families we were ostracised for being Commie Russians. And like you, when I went to College in Dickinson I met other Ukranian cousins and began to embrace that part of my heritage and let go of the early ethnic shaming. Thanks for this story. Michael B Henderson (Grosulak) age 67.


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