I am riding along Highway 2 on a bright fall day, reflecting on lessons of growing up in this state. I am on a rare trip back to North Dakota, this time to celebrate the life — and death — of my father, Robert Willenbring.
Dad’s life characterized traits common to North Dakotans, lessons he passed on to me. Dad was the 17th of 21 children. He tried farming on the family’s small plot near Foxholm, tried the Army, and tried work in the oil fields, until he settled into a 30-year career with the North Dakota Highway Patrol. Along the way, he married a North Dakota farm girl, and had a family of nine children. In retirement, he lived in Minot, then Bismarck.
Resilience was perhaps the most important of my lessons from Dad, to bounce back from adversity, and pull through a bad day, week or year. One constant adversity in North Dakota the people learn resilience to is the weather. As a child, I remember during tornado warnings, when I sat with Dad on the front stoop of our house, watching the gray-green clouds swirl, experiencing the storm not as a threat, but something to watch go by. Blizzards and big snows were no big deal. You just dug out afterward.
Resilience is a positive trait in recovering from setbacks, but a negative if it leads to being stubborn. Dad had a lot of stubborn in him — and so does North Dakota. The lesson to learn is when it’s time to change. The cycles of boom-and-bust from North Dakota’s oil-and-coal-based economy that keep the state on a roller coaster are no longer markers for resilience, but the need for change.
Dad’s work as a patrol officer taught me the value of public service and fostered in me a curiosity about news and politics. I became a journalist. My first reporting job was covering politics for The Bismarck Tribune. To this day, I still believe in the good that government can do. But from what I’ve read lately, many North Dakotans no longer believe in “good” government, despite the benefits they gain from public services. It’s one of those stubborn decisions that keep North Dakota from opportunities that progressive policies provide.
In the early 1900s, North Dakotans in the Nonpartisan League showed resilience and public service by establishing the state-owned bank and mill and elevator, which continue to benefit the state.
The NPL was a historic show of the independence so fiercely treasured by North Dakotans. Dad would proudly proclaim he was a “GDI,” the swear-worthy kind of independent. I learned that lesson well. As the middle child of nine siblings, I was highly independent and self-sufficient. By age 11, I had my own checking account and bought my own clothes. I worked long hours baby-sitting, then waitering. I boasted to my kids about my first waitering job, riding bike in the dark to work a 4 a.m. shift.
But independence, like resilience, carries negatives. Dad often chose independence over building stronger ties with family, despite having a large immediate and extended family.
With its geographic isolation, North Dakota needs to value dependence more than independence to find its place in the new economy. It needs more collaboration, less competition, to grow stronger, or risk losing relationships and people.
The energy industry offers examples of rewards and risks to North Dakota’s relationships. In the new economy, alternative fuels are the engines of growth. The windmills I saw along Highway 83 signal the state is leveraging its rich resource of wind. But the U.S. Energy Department ranks North Dakota 46th in renewable energy production, compared to South Dakota at No. 9 or Maine at No. 1. North Dakota would do well to build collaborations with these states.
Developing more renewable energy would strengthen North Dakota’s relationship with its largest utility, XCel Energy, and avoid the current conflict, in which Xcel has filed to spin off its North Dakota customers in a separate utility.
The conflict of the Dakota Access Pipeline should convert instead to a collaboration with Native American tribes around renewables. The passion and resources that poured in from around the U.S. to protest the pipeline could be tapped for projects such as solar gardens. That kind of collaboration would require setting aside a lot of stubbornness.
New collaborations in energy, or other areas, would require conversations with people we don’t usually talk to. My dad was a master at talking with strangers, with an easygoing, charming North Dakotan welcome. I hope North Dakota adopts that same path, an easygoing welcome to strangers, and new ideas, for new ways of life and learning.