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J. Shane Mercer, Published January 03 2009

Former North Dakota figure Verwey dies at 87

Bill Verwey, the mayor of Nekoma, N.D., when the federal government built and promptly shut down a multibillion-dollar missile defense site near the town, died Tuesday at Maple Manor Care Center in Langdon, N.D.

Dawn Roppel, Verwey’s daughter, said her father died in his sleep of unknown causes. He was 87.

Verwey served as the town’s mayor from 1966 to 1986. During part of that time, the northeast North Dakota town had what an Associated Press article called “a front row seat in the Cold War.” Nekoma boomed in the 1970s as the government constructed the anti-ballistic missile site just a mile north of town.

Jobs and prosperity came as swarms of people descended on the little town to build and man the facility. The population of Nekoma, which is only about 16 miles south of the Canadian border, swelled to 500 at one point.

But, according to an Associated Press story, “four months and 10 days after the $5.5 billion missile site and facilities started up, it was shut down.”

“What happened happened so fast it was like having a rug pulled out from under us,” Verwey said in a 1980 article.

With it went the people and the boom. By 1980, the population was 85.

The ordeal made Verwey something of a spokesman for the little town. Newsweek, the national weekly news magazine, interviewed him at one point. And he was quoted by The New York Times in a 1999 article and in a number of Associated Press stories.

In addition to his work as mayor, Verwey served as a paratrooper in World War II, taught Golden Gloves boxing in Grand Forks and appeared on the television game show “To Tell the Truth.” He owned the Nekoma Bar for years and also managed the farmer’s co-op elevator in town.

“He had wit to no end,” said Roppel. “He was so full of wit.”

Bob Wilhelmi, owner of the Pain Reliever bar in Nekoma, was a friend of Verwey, who used to help him run the Pain Reliever after closing his own bar.

“He was friendly to all and just a great guy,” Wilhelmi said. “There was never a dull moment.”

Verwey is survived by three sons, three daughters, 12 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. The funeral for Verwey is 10:30 a.m. today at St. Edward’s Catholic Church in Nekoma.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734