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William L. Guy

William L. Guy, Jr., 1940, Farmer, Public Servant Governor 1961-1973

In the 1960's through the early 1970s, the brothers of ND Beta were proud to say that the Governor of the State of North Dakota was none other than their brother, William L. Guy, Jr. It has been said that during his tenure as governor, Bill Guy modernized state government, presided over the greatest steel and concrete decade in North Dakota history, demonstrated his popularity by being elected for four terms of office in a Republican state, and governed with a charisma of competence. Bill was born September 30, 1919 in Devils Lake, ND to William and Mable 

(Leet) Guy, Sr. In 1922, Bill's father became Cass Co. Extension Agent, and in 1926 he took over the management of the Chaffee estate at Amenia where Bill, Jr. grew up. Upon graduating from Amenia High School in 1937, Bill enrolled at North Dakota Agricultural College (NDAC) and became a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. In his autobiography, Bill mentions the tragic loss of his best friend and fraternity brother, Bill Smith, in an airplane accident when they were both were taking flying lessons with the Civil Air Patrol. Bill also mentions how proud he was when Jean Mason accepted his SAE pin. Having completed his B.S. in agricultural economics in 1940, he left to begin his graduate studies in at the University of Minnesota.


In his memoir, Bill said that after pinning Jean, he felt better about leaving her at NDAC to be looked after by his fraternity brothers. Their separation didn’t last long, however, as they were married, January 30, 1943. To this union were born five children: William L. Guy III (Marilyn), Fargo; Jim Guy (Jane), Amenia; Deb Igoe, Bismarck; Holly Mossberg (Dale), New London MN; and Nancy Guy (Greg Stites), Bismarck. After receiving his B.S. degree from North Dakota Agricultural College (NDAC), Bill served in the United States Navy in World War II. He received a master's degree from the University of Minnesota, and then became the assistant county agent for Cass County. With his wife Jean, he began farming at Amenia, North Dakota, in 1948 and taught agricultural economics at NDAC during the winter quarters.


In the legislature he served as assistant minority leader. His election as governor on the Democratic-Non Partisan League ticket finally established the two-party system in North Dakota. As governor, Bill served two two-year terms and two four-year terms. His graduate studies were interrupted by WWII. According to the profile by historian Jerome Tweton, Bill completed the Navy's midshipman school at Notre Dame University, and as an ensign was assigned to the destroyer, the USS William D. Porter. On June 10, 1945, while the Porter was in the Pacific, Bill looked up and saw a Japanese airplane zeroing in on his ship. It smashed into the destroyer, tossing Bill 20 feet into the air. He was shaken but not injured, but his ship was sunk.


After concluding his service in the Navy, Bill, finished his master’s degree in agricultural economics in 1946, and came home to the farm near Amenia. It was in 1958 that Bill's political career began. As Tweton noted in the profile, despite the fact that there were not many Democrats around Amenia, in 1958 Bill won election to the North Dakota House of Representatives. In the 1959 session, Bill served as assistant minority leader in a legislature where there were few Democrats. When he received the gubernatorial nomination in 1960 on the newly merged Democratic-Nonpartisan League ticket, few gave him much of any chance to win against the well-organized and well-financed Republican Party. But he won, demon-strating that North Dakota had become a two-party state. As governor, Bill served two two-year terms and two four-year terms. As histo-rian Clay Jenkinson noted, Bill is regarded as having brought North Dakota into the second half of the 20th Century. After two world wars, the depression of the 20s, the Great Depression of the 30s, and the Dust Bowl, North Dakota had a weak infrastructure when Bill became governor. As Jean aptly stated it, “So much had been put on hold during the middle years of the century.” The state's highways weren't paved, the Interstate Highway system had not begun, state government was almost non-existent and entirely reactive, and state educational and mental health institu-tions had been for the most part neglected. Bill was elected the same year that John F. Kennedy was elected President, and just as Kennedy promised to get the country moving again after the languid Eisenhower years, so was Bill determined to trans-form North Dakota's economy, to add value to the state's commodities within the state, and to professionalize and energize state government. 


During his four terms, however, North Dakota's infrastructure dramatically im-proved. According to the State Historical Society's profile, during his tenure Bill modernized state government by implementing the new Office of Management and Budget; the state hospital's patient load was reduced from 2,600 to 600 and eight regional mental health districts were established; he organized the five-state Old West Trail Tourist Loop; four large federal projects – the interstate highway system, 350 Minuteman missiles, the anti-ballistic missiles site, and Garrison Diversion – came to North Dakota; and he was instrumental in bringing three sugar beet refineries and large scale coal-fired electrical generation stations to North Dakota. In addition, he originated the concept of an interpretive North Dakota Heritage Center and promoted its construction, he established The Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award as North Dakota's highest recognition; organized and served as the first chair-man of the Midwest Governors' Conference in 1962; and he was elected chairman of the National Governors' Conference in 1966. In 1974, Bill was an unsuccessful candidate for the United States Senate, losing the election by only 187 votes.


The late historian Larry Remele attributed Bill's success as governor to not being a man of grand vision, nor to being a spellbinding orator, but to having “the charisma of competence”. After Bill completed his terms as governor, his public service continued in various capacities. From 1975 to 1977 Bill was the Executive Director of the Western Governor’s Regional Energy Office; from 1977-1979 he was the Execu-tive Director of the North Dakota Community Foundation, from 1979 to 1985 he was Natural Resources Consultant to Basin Electric Power Cooperative, and from 1986 to 1992 he served on the Board of Governors of Common Cause. One incident during Bill's tenure as governor is illustrative of his calm and competent manner was how he handled the ABM march in the spring of 1970. Following the US invasion of Cambodia in April, student unrest erupted on col-lege campuses resulting in deaths at Kent State University and Jackson State University. More than 450 university, college and high school campuses were shut down by student strikes and both violent and non-violent protests that involved more than four million students. According to historian Clay Jenkinson, on May 14-15, North Dakota college students planned to assemble at the ABM Complex to protest nuclear proliferation and the Vietnam War.


The US Justice Department sent out a riot control team to meet with Governor Guy, but he assured them that he would take adequate measure to prevent the protest from getting out of hand. Prior to the march, Bill issued a statement to the citizens of North Dakota in which he said how he planned to handle the demonstration. As Jenkinson notes, Bill handled the situation in just the right way: He did not demonize the protes-tors nor condemn the demonstration which he publicly defended as being in the best tradition of American democracy; he stationed the Guard nearby but instruct-ed them to not interfere with the peaceful demonstration nor were they to be pre-sent or visible along the route to the ABM site; he granted the demonstrators permission to plant peace trees on the highway right-of-way near the ABM site; and he went to UND to meet with students and faculty, to listen to their concerns and to assure them that if they behaved responsibly they had nothing to fear. While at UND, Bill received a phone call from US Attorney General Mitchell who pres-sured him to secure the ABM site. Governor Guy refused to do so, and he re-minded the attorney general that students had the right to peacefully assemble. When the Attorney General asked if he planned on being at the site, the Governor responded that he would be there if they needed one more person to swell the crowd because he also protested the waste of money that the AMB site represented. The march on the ABM site was completely peaceful, and it resembled Woodstock more than Kent State because the protestors planted trees, sat in a wheat field, and sang songs and listened to poetry, free speech and rock music. Experts who studied that terrible month said that Gov. Guy provided a “textbook case” of “precisely the right way to respond to a situation of this sort.” 


How Governor Guy handled the student protest in May of 1970 is representative of the characteristics of a True Gentleman, especially, the man “whose conduct proceeds from good will and an acute sense of propriety and whose self-control is equal to all emergencies”, “who does not . . .cringe before power”, and “who speaks with frankness but always with sincerity and sympathy; whose deed follows his word”; “a man with whom honor is sacred and virtue safe.” Brother Guy has honored our fraternity with his excellence in public service, successive generations of North Dakotans have been the beneficiaries of his modernization of state gov-ernment and of his development of the state’s infrastructure, and his “charisma of competence” and practicing the creed of the True Gentleman provides us all with a standard by which to measure our conduct.

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