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Published April 29 2013

Forum editorial: Bill Guy was ‘true ND giant’

The legacy of former Gov. Bill Guy is stamped throughout North Dakota. It spans the state, east to west and north to south, with the Interstate highways that connect North Dakota to the rest of the nation. It lights homes, farms and businesses from the coal-fired power plants and lignite industry he helped establish. It provides jobs and enhanced farm income from the sugar-beet refining plants in the Red River Valley that he helped get off the ground. Guy’s 12 years (1961 to 1973) as governor – the longest tenure of any North Dakota governor – was a period that stands out for its progress in diversifying and modernizing the state’s economy, in many ways laying the foundation for today’s economy.

Today, North Dakotans will gather to remember Guy, who died Friday at age 93, in a memorial service in Fargo. A second memorial will be held Thursday in Bismarck. Many friends and public servants will pay tribute to a man former Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., a fellow Democrat and Guy protégé, rightly called a “true giant” in North Dakota’s history. A Navy gunnery officer in World War II, he was a member of the “Greatest Generation,” committed to service.

Guy’s election as governor in 1960 on the Democratic-Non Partisan League ticket is regarded by some as marking the true beginning of bipartisan politics in a state long dominated by Republicans. As governor, Guy worked hard to build the party, and recruited a roster of talented politicians, Dorgan and former Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., among them, who became the next generation of leaders. The party – and by extension the competitiveness of North Dakota politics – has suffered over the past two decades because the Democrats have lacked another transformative leader like Bill Guy.

Guy, a former farmer, wasn’t a flamboyant politician. In the early years, his trademark crew-cut was a symbol for his quiet, unpretentious leadership style, what a historian called the “charisma of competence.” He believed that government could be a force for good in peoples’ lives, and was a strong supporter of the role of government in helping to strengthen the economy.

According to his family, one of his proudest accomplishments was streamlining the state hospital in Jamestown and establishing regional human service centers, so mental patients no longer were “warehoused.” Guy’s greatest disappointment was the fact he never saw the completion of the Garrison Diversion Project, to divert Missouri River water to the east, including the Red River, a cause he had championed as governor.

By the narrowest of margins, a mere 177 votes, Guy was defeated in a bid for the U.S. Senate in 1974, losing to incumbent Sen. Milton Young, R-N.D., in a three-way race. There’s no telling what Guy would have achieved in Washington. But Guy’s visionary leadership as governor assures his place in North Dakota history as a giant.

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Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.