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Bob Lind, Published June 20 2010

Fargo woman remembers life with her famous father

William “Bill” Langer was one of North Dakota’s most dominant political figures. As a maverick Republican politician who became governor and senator, he was loved by many, disliked by many, and carried clout locally and nationally.

He became known as “Wild Bill.” But to Mary Gokey, he was simply “Daddy.”

Mary, 85, is the third of Bill and Lydia Langer’s four daughters. Everyone calls her Mimi. She lives in Fargo with her cat named Brother, plays bridge and wonders what in the world to do with stacks of mementoes from her father’s long political career that brought a fair share of glory and turmoil to the family.

Mimi was in third grade when her father, from Casselton, was elected governor and the family moved into the governor’s mansion in Bismarck, which had an attic where “We kids would play and do ‘naughty’ things like play spin the bottle,” Mimi says.

Being the governor’s child allowed her to have experiences other kids lacked. Example: Sometimes a prisoner from the penitentiary drove her to school.

When she was in junior high school, Mimi and her friends would toboggan on a hill behind the Capitol building, then go into the governor’s office, shed their outer garments and play hide and seek in the Capitol. “We had a wonderful time,” she says.

Famous people would visit her parents.

“I’d sit on the stairs and listen,” she says. One of those guests was pilot Amelia Earhart.

One negative thing about all this, she says, was that “We girls couldn’t do things other kids did,” such as visit a popular Bismarck hangout. “Mother said we had to ask if whatever we did would be good for Daddy because everything we did would reflect on him.”

But politics were a part of the Langer girls’ lives.

At Christmastime, the whole family gathered to send cards to the many people on their daddy’s mailing list. Mimi handed out voters’ guide cards when she was in grade school, and the family traveled around the state distributing campaign buttons.

At times, though, being the daughter of a politician was tough.

Mimi remembers going to a basketball game and hearing people yell, “Boo Langer! Boo Langer!” “Things like that were hard to take,” she says.

Out of office

There was plenty of criticism of Mimi’s dad when the state Supreme Court removed him from office in 1934 after he had been convicted of a felony for soliciting funds from federal employees for political purposes, and said the duties of governor had to go to the lieutenant governor.

To replace him on the upcoming election ballot, the Republicans ran his wife for governor.

Lydia had no political aspirations, but she made the run anyhow. “She ran for Daddy’s sake,” Mimi says. “She gave good speeches. She said that when you do something, you should put your heart into it.”

Lydia was defeated by Democrat Thomas Moodie. Then Moodie was disqualified because it was found he had recently voted in Minnesota, making him a nonresident of North Dakota.

“I knew Moodie wasn’t qualified long before that became known,” Mimi says, “because my parents talked about it at home.”

But the family had rough financial times when Bill was out of office. He’d been disbarred as an attorney, too, so he couldn’t practice law.

“I remember our family owed $1,000 to the grocery store,” Mimi says. “Daddy borrowed on his insurance. A tailor in Bismarck gave him a suit of clothes.”

Eventually her father’s felony conviction was reversed after several trials, and he was re-elected governor in 1936. And then he became senator.

Tea with first lady

Mimi loved attending Bismarck High School. But now her father and the family moved to Washington, where she was enrolled in a private school. She loved that, too, plus the fun of “just waltzing on the Capitol elevator reserved for senators and their guests.”

Always, Bill Langer made headlines. He was one of only two senators to vote against the United Nations charter. He once pulled off a one-man filibuster for almost 30 hours. And he won re-election in 1958 without making a single appearance in the state.

She tells of the time her father, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, was excited because he was about to meet the new leader of Cuba, Fidel Castro.

When he came home, he had a different outlook. “That man,” he told his family, “is crazy.”

Mimi, meanwhile, also met some famous people.

She once drove Sen. Estes Kefauver, D-Tenn., home; he later became a candidate for president. She also met that young senator from California, Richard Nixon.

“Washington was like a big small town,” she says. “You knew everybody.”

One time her mother took her to a tea given by Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the president. “I remember being impressed by her,” Mimi says.

Mimi by now was attending George Washington University in Washington, where her classmate, sorority sister and good friend was Margaret Truman.

She tells of when she had friends over for lunch “and the only one who helped me clean up was Margaret.”

Margaret invited Mimi to attend the national Democratic convention at which Margaret’s father, Harry, was to be endorsed as Franklin Roosevelt’s running mate. Mimi didn’t go – she can’t remember why – and she regrets missing that event.

When Roosevelt died and Vice President Truman became president, Mimi received a call from Margaret. “Just because my father is president now, don’t drop me like a hot potato,” Margaret said.

Mimi didn’t. She and Margaret remained lifelong friends.

Among her other college friends was the daughter of Sen. John Sparkman, the Democratic candidate for vice president in 1952. “I just got a card from her,” she says.

Along came Frank

Life magazine ran a picture of the Langer family after the girls were grown. As a result, the girls got fan mail from some boys.

Mimi never graduated from college. Instead, she married Franklyn Gokey, who was stationed in Washington, D.C., while he was in the Navy. For her wedding, Mimi wore the wedding gown of the mother of North Dakota’s current senator, Kent Conrad.

The Gokeys eventually moved to North Dakota where Frank became president of the Surety Mutual Life and Casualty Co. in Fargo and Northern Bottling Co. in Minot. He died in 2006. He and Mimi had four children: Ann Humphrey, now of Bethesda, Md., who for many years was press secretary for the late Sen. Quentin Burdick, D-N.D.; Langer Gokey, Minot; Franklyn (Snyder) Gokey, Fargo; and Tim Gokey, Kansas City, Mo.; and 10 grandchildren.

“I never really had a job,” Mimi says. “Raising kids was my job.”

The family must have some interesting get-togethers because, Mimi says, “I’ve got two raging Democrats and two Republicans for children.”

Mimi recalls the time Lydia told her husband, “Bill, if we’d had a son, maybe he’d have grown up to be an artist or something other than a politician.”

To which Bill replied, “I would have killed him.”

Mimi is pretty sure he didn’t mean it.

‘Wonderful’ father

Mimi’s mother died in 1959. Her father died only a few weeks later.

“Daddy stayed in the hospital with Mother until she died,” Mimi says. “I think he’d still be alive if she were still here.”

Never mind that her father was controversial. Mimi saw him only as a loving husband and a “wonderful” father who, although busy with political duties, took time to spend with his daughters and to scratch off notes to them.

One of these notes, which Mimi still has, is from Christmas 1943 and reads:

“2 + 2 is 4

And

4 + 4 is 10

You are still my loving daughter and for you I’ve got a yen!

Devoted Daddy.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Bob Lind at (701) 241-5512