JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — And Then There Were None; RIP, Minot Mafia

He was a handsome young Georgia Marine in spit-shined shoes, a white hat and a sharply pressed dress uniform, a member of the United States Marine Corps Drill Team, stationed in Washington, D.C., in the mid-1950s.

She was a pretty little country girl from North Dakota, working in the Washington office of a North Dakota congressman.

Their paths crossed. She swept him off his feet, all the way back to North Dakota, where they married, had a family, built careers. Last week, 66 years later, Gary “Slim” Williamson died in the home they shared for many years, with Mavis at his side, just as she had been all those years.

Now, if you have even a passing interest in North Dakota politics, you’ve heard of the infamous “Minot Mafia.” They’re all gone now. Slim was the last. What a bunch they were. I knew them all well.

  • Lee Christensen. Farmer, state representative, state senator. Died in 1996, age 72.
  • Richard “Dick” Backes. Farmer, state representative, House majority leader, North Dakota Highway commissioner. Died in 2000, age 74.
  • Mark Purdy. Attorney, North Dakota Democratic National committeeman. Died in 2011, age 83.
  • Larry Erickson. Farmer, atate representative, chairman of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party. Died in 2014, age 83.
  • Wally Beyer. Rural Electric Co-op manager, director of the United States Rural Electrification Administration. Died in 2015, age 84.
  • Herb Meschke. Attorney, state representative, state senator, North Dakota Supreme Court justice. Died in 2017, age 89.
  • And Slim Williamson. Longtime manager of Central Power Electric Cooperative, state representative. Died in 2023, age 86.

All except Herb were veterans, Dick and Larry in the Army, Mark and Lee in the Navy, Wally in the Air Force and Slim in the Marines. Herb came of age in the period between World War II and Korea and opted for law school instead of military service. He became one of the state’s best-known lawyers and served on the state’s highest court for 14 years.

They came together in 1965, when five of them — Slim, Lee, Herb, Dick and Larry — served in the majority in the North Dakota House of Representatives after being elected in the Lyndon Johnson landslide of 1964. The rest is history.

They all remained deeply involved in Democratic-NPL politics all of their lives, never missing a district or state convention, and they helped elect three governors — Bill Guy, Art Link and Bud Sinner — and a bunch of congressmen and senators — Byron Dorgan, Kent Conrad, Earl Pomeroy and Heidi Heitkamp.

I think the Minot Mafia moniker was given to them by Dick Dobson, editor of the Minot Daily News. He’s still around, and I asked him the other day, but he wasn’t sure. “It was a long time ago.” Dick’s 88 now and still remembers a lot but not everything. He lives at the North Dakota Veterans Home in Lisbon. We talk on the phone occasionally. I keep promising to go visit, but my pickup just always seems to go west instead of east when I turn it loose on the highway.

The Minot Mafia. I could tell a hundred stories about them, but I won’t. OK, I’ll tell one. In the spring of 1985 I was just finishing up my time as executive sirector of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party. The 1984 election had been a successful one, and we held lots of seats in the Legislature in 1985 and elected Bud Sinner governor and Nick Spaeth attorney general, along with several other statewide officials.

My phone rang one day and it was Dick Backes. He said, “Fuglie (I never heard him call me Jim, always Fuglie), we’re going fishing in Canada in June. How’d you like to go along?”

Wow. An invitation to go fishing with the Minot Mafia on their annual trip to Jan Lake in Saskatchewan. Just like the real Mafia somewhere out east, I’d been “made.” I jumped at the chance.

Later, before we left, I asked Slim to describe a typical day at Jan Lake, so I could prepare.

“Well,” he said, “We eat breakfast, we jump in the boats and go fishing, we come back and have supper, and then we sit around the fire and drink martinis until it gets dark.”

I said I could handle that.

Sure enough we did that on our first day there, and it wasn’t until about 3 a.m. that I realized it never really gets dark in northern Saskatchewan on June nights, and we were still drinking martinis. Those boys could drink a lot of martinis. Breakfast was pretty late.

But now they are gone. Only the stories remain. And memories, especially Larry holding forth at the Pour Farm in south Minot, the first bar you come to when you leave the Erickson farm and head into town. On a late winter afternoon, the chores done, Larry would let the boys know he was headed for the Pour Farm. And they’d gather. And drink martinis.

So now they’re all gone, but I have to guess Slim, the manager, the organizer, the camp chef, the bartender, has somehow managed to round them all up somewhere. And they probably aren’t wearing wings. Yet. So long, Slim. Say hi to the boys from Minot from me. I hope I bump into you all again sometime.

3 thoughts on “JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — And Then There Were None; RIP, Minot Mafia”

  • RIchard Watson July 6, 2023 at 12:49 pm

    what to say–17 years in Mott, 5 in Dickinson, 4 in Dubuque Iowa, 2 in Rhame, 2 at Metigoshe and the rest of my love checkered life up to now right here in my Mum’s home town: and my response to this essay is–“this is most certainly true”–thanks Fuglie for telling the tale–

  • John Burke July 6, 2023 at 2:39 pm

    When I was a very young man I had a long conversation with Herb Meschke at a Democratic Party function. He was extraordinary to talk with, and that talk influenced my decision several years later to attend his law school alma mater, the University of Michigan.

  • John Petrik July 7, 2023 at 5:20 am

    Like you said, Jim. Lot of stories. Gary loved politics down to his soul. In 1980, he was meeting with Presidents. In 1984, he was walking the streets of Minot hanging doorhangers for a State House race. No level of politics(or especially political gossip) was too trivial for him. I remember , before the internet, one election night, long after headquarters and the bars closed, Gary and I in his living room , calling folks in Jamestown and Crosby and who knows where else, looking for vote counts. Gary was a Democrat- through bad and good. They’re standing in line at Roosevelt, Gary Williamson.


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