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Admiral sings N.D. song in many languages

Bob Lind, Neighbors columnist

You've read a lot about the old North Dakota song here in recent weeks: the song which begins, "You oughta go to North Dakota; see the cattle and the wheat, and the folks that can't be beat."

Now here's a story about Admiral Bill Owens, a North Dakota boy who made good, and then some, in the military, and who along the way sang this song to people around the world.

Word about him came from former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer, Fargo, who made Bill a North Dakota Rough Rider, the highest honor the state can bestow.

Acting on Ed's tip, Neighbors contacted Bill for more information. Here's what he wrote about himself:

Bill OwensHe was born and raised in Bismarck. "My parents were quite poor," he says, "and we never became, in any way, a part of the Bismarck middle class.

"I grew up in a trailer house at Mader's trailer court on the Missouri River, was a good student, had a paper route for many years and had grandparents in Mandan (N.D.) who I greatly admired.

"I had no brothers or sisters, and was living a pretty good life as a North Dakota boy with a fine Saint Bernard dog, Bernie, who was always by my side, and the hope that somehow life would turn out well.

"In my senior high school year, I watched on our first black-and-white TV a show called 'Men of Annapolis.' These guys wore white uniforms. I asked my dad how I could go to 'that place!' He said, 'I think you have to get a nomination from a senator or congressman.'

"I talked to Sen. Quentin Burdick (D-N.D.) and he said, 'Why, sure, son. I think I can help you.' Three weeks later I was on my way on a train to Annapolis via Washington, D.C.

"On that journey," Bill continues, "I saw my first African-American, (I came later in life to admire them and many of the races and people of a very different world) and came to grips with the fact that life was going to be very different. I wasn't quite sure how or why, but I was sure it was not going to be much like my home, North Dakota.

"I was a dedicated midshipman at the Naval Academy, had good grades and went into the Rickover nuclear submarine program. I also had the beginnings of what turned out to be an introduction to the Rhodes scholarships and later was able to institute a scholarship to go there and graduate while I was in the Navy.

"I found out that the ethics of hard work and dedication sometimes outpaced the sometimes better educations of my classmates, and I began my long naval career around the world. I had a couple of deployments to Vietnam, a lot of time under the ice on nuclear submarines and eventually commanded a fast attack nuclear submarine and a ballistic missile submarine.

"I then became very fortunate being in the right places at the right times and wound up as the 6th fleet commander during the first Desert Storm, the military assistant to Secretaries of Defense Frank Carlucci and Dick Cheney and then in more important roles in the Pentagon.

"I finally completed my tour of duty as the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the second most senior military officer in the United States.

"During this entire time," Bill says, "I prided myself on my independence, making right decisions and generally being able to weather not being liked by many because of my positions. To this day I'm proud of that, and a lot of that background came from being from one of the great places of the world, North Dakota.

"During my last 15 years in the military, I made it quite evident that I was from the state very few people had visited or knew anything about.

"Along the way, I had also been honored by Gov. Schafer and made a North Dakota Rough Rider."

Crooning the tune

"After the first Desert Storm and the great success we had there," Bill says, "I found that in all the ports of the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and the Red Sea, it was a good thing to do, although not real 'admiralty-like,' to be telling my guests on the deck of a large carrier about my home state, how special a place this was, and how many great Americans had come from these kinds of places in our country.

"I had memorized the North Dakota song in 14 languages and was quick at all of these receptions to put on this 'performance' for my guests. This widely met with somewhat amazing stares from my guests and eventually with considerable interest.

"On one occasion in southern France, when I had been named the 'Chevalet du Tastevan," one of the wine country's great rewards every year, I gave a talk and decided I would sing our North Dakota state song in English and in French, in my typical fashion. There were several French opera singers at this event who performed later, and you can only imagine the interesting reaction from the crowd, my wife and from these wonderful talented singers.

"North Dakota," Bill concludes, "has made a huge difference to me, stirring all of my life, and I have tried to be engaged in our state continually over the years."

Multi-lingual

Bill today lives in Seattle and in La Jolla, Calif., but he also spends a lot of time in Hong Kong and Beijing. He retired from the Navy in 1996, but he's not exactly slowing down. He's the executive chairman of a company in Seattle called Red Bison, is a director on four boards and is deeply involved in philanthropy.

His wife Monika is from Germany. Her father was a German soldier. Bill met her when she was an associate professor at the University of Hawaii and he was a submarine officer in Honolulu.

Bill gets back to North Dakota about every other month.

He plays down his ability to sing the North Dakota song in other languages. But Schafer indicates he's just being modest.

"Bill used the song as an ice-breaker when he landed in an important port during his leadership posts in the Navy," Ed says. "He would learn the words in the local language and sing them to his host at the formal welcome ceremonies, though of course tipping the translators off to the words ahead of time so they wouldn't struggle over things like 'oughta'!"

Bill says he speaks Italian and French "a little bit." But he admits he's sung the North Dakota song in Romanian, Bulgarian, Russian, Chinese, Yiddish, German, Greek, Ukranian, Spanish, Turkish and Hindi, and he's tried to sing it in several Middle East countries.

But the bottom line, Bill says, is that " I stand today, a proud American and North Dakotan."

If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107, fax it to 241-5487 or email blind@forumcomm.com.

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