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Patrick Springer, Published March 02 2013

After his death, family discovered ‘Uncle Rudy’ was in KKK

FARGO – Neila Mae Johnson knew the amiable family friend as “Uncle Rudy.”

Rudolph Bener was an immigrant from Croatia and spoke with a thick Slavic accent.

He worked for years at the Ford plant on Broadway, and listed his occupation when he immigrated to Fargo in 1910 as mechanic.

For a time, he lived with the Johnson family in the Horace Mann neighborhood. He once went on a vacation with Neila’s father, Nelius, to California.

Bener, who once had proposed to Johnson’s aunt, never married. After he died, in 1964, it fell to the Johnson family to clean out his house on Lake Melissa near Detroit Lakes, Minn. What they found shocked them:

Uncle Rudy had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Johnsons found an old hooded white robe, soiled because mice had used it for a nest, and documents including a KKK membership card and ornate certificate of membership.

“My mother was so appalled by it and so afraid someone would see it and think we were associated with the Klan that she destroyed it immediately,” Johnson, whose married name is Neila Tillman, wrote.

Now living in Lansing, Mich., she rediscovered the documents, which she’d thought her mother burned along with the robe, in 1988. Two years later, she donated the documents to the North Dakota State University archives.

“I am giving all this stuff freely to the Institute for Regional Studies,” she wrote in a letter accompanying the documents. “I feel it’s especially important to keep records of shameful and embarrassing parts of history, so we can learn from our mistakes.”

She thought Bener, who was a naturalized citizen of Eastern European background, made an improbable member of the KKK. Looking back, she suspects he might have joined to be accepted as an American.

Bener’s membership card in the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, issued in 1927, declared that he had been found “loyal and worthy of advancement in the mysteries of Klankraft.”

“He spoke with this really thick accent all of his life,” she said in an interview. He’d never said anything to the Johnsons that gave a hint of his Klan affiliation.

“He was just the nicest, friendliest guy,” she said. “He was like another uncle, except with this incredible south Slav accent.”

For whatever reason, the robe and KKK documents were important enough that he kept them, reminders of the time the “Invisible Empire” attracted thousands of followers in North Dakota during the 1920s.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522