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Andrea Hunter Halgrimson column: As I Recall: Usher Burdick had many tales to tell

In the days before "going postal" entered the language and before children brought guns to school to murder their classmates and teachers, and before drive-by shootings made the local news, and before John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King were a...

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In the days before "going postal" entered the language and before children brought guns to school to murder their classmates and teachers, and before drive-by shootings made the local news, and before John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated and the nation became unshockable, there was a shoot-out in Congress that stunned the country.

A recent Associated Press anniversary story in the Washington Post tells the tale:

On March 1, 1954, four Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire from the visitors' gallery above the chamber. They sprayed some 30 shots around the hall and wounded five lawmakers, one seriously.

No one was killed, although some 240 members were on the floor at the time of the shooting.

The attackers were led by Lolita Lebron, a 34-year-old nationalist angered by Puerto Rico's new commonwealth status with the United States. Shouting "Viva Puerto Rico Libre," she unfurled a Puerto Rican flag and joined her comrades in firing off shots with automatic pistols.

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A small bullet hole in the desk used by Republicans when they speak on the floor of the House is a memento of the event.

Rep. Usher Burdick, a Republican from North Dakota, was interviewed less than an hour after the incident.

"We were just about to take a vote when one woman and three men -- that's what I saw -- started shooting. The shots came so fast it sounded like a machine gun. ... If I had had any sense, I would have ducked. ... They were just shooting into the crowd. If they were shooting at individuals, I probably would have been the first one hit. I'm certainly big enough for a target." (According to another news story, Burdick was 6 feet tall and weighed 300 pounds.)

About 20 feet away from Burdick, Rep. Alvin Bentley was shot. Burdick went to assist Bentley as blood ran from both sides of him. A bullet had gone through Bentley just below his heart and exited on the other side.

Reading of the anniversary, I was reminded of an evening spent with Usher Burdick at the home of Margaret (Tronnes) and David Scott (known as Scotty), our next-door neighbors on Broadway in Fargo. At the time, Scotty was an aide to Sen. Quentin Burdick, Usher's son.

That evening the elder Burdick regaled us with the story of the shooting. I remember him saying that a colleague who had for many years been wheelchair bound, arose and ran for the exit when the shooting began.

While I do not remember the details of his other stories, the one about the man in the wheelchair remains in my memory. I do remember that hearing his stories was fascinating.

Burdick was a marvelous storyteller. I recall that afterwards some of his family who were there said that they wished the evening had been taped. But taping his memories was never to be. He died a few weeks later.

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Born at Owatonna, Minn., on Feb. 21, 1879, the youngest of six children, he moved with his parents, Ozias and Lucy (Farnum) Burdick, to Carrington, Dakota Territory, when he was 3.

In 1884, his father purchased a farm near his two oldest sons, Orland and George, on Graham's Island, east of Minnewaukan in Benson County on the edge of the Fort Totten Reservation now known as Spirit Lake Sioux Indian Reservation.

In grade school he learned to speak the local Indian dialect. He graduated from college in Mayville in 1900, and with a bachelor's degree and a law degree from the University of Minnesota in 1904. There he also gained a notable reputation as right end on the Gopher football team. After graduation, he practiced law in Munich, N.D.

In 1906, he was elected to the North Dakota House as a Republican. Re-elected in 1908, he was chosen as speaker in 1909 and, according to Forum files, was the youngest speaker of a legislative body in the United States at that time.

In 1910, he became lieutenant governor and established his ranch near Williston. Burdick lost bids for the governorship in 1914 and 1916 after which he became involved with the Nonpartisan League.

He served as Williams County states attorney and as assistant U.S. district attorney in Fargo from 1929 until 1932 when he ran for the U.S. House and lost. But in 1934 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served until 1944 when he ran for the U.S. Senate and lost the election. In 1949, he was elected again to the U.S. House where he served until his retirement.

He worked not only on behalf of North Dakota farmers but as an advocate for Native Americans.

One of Burdick's earliest works, "The Last Battle of the Sioux Nation," was published in 1929. Two years later, he commissioned Chief Joseph White Bull, Chief Sitting Bull's nephew, to record his life events. The ledger book, "Sioux History in Pictures," includes White Bull's account of the Battle of the Little Big Horn and the killing of Gen. George A. Custer.

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During Burdick's lifetime he was often described as a maverick, square-dealer and straight-talker. Burdick was never without a cigar. He wrote 20 books -- most of them focusing on Native Americans and North Dakota history. He was also a collector of rare books.

And he was a husband, married three times, and a father of three children -- Quentin Northrup, Eugene Allen and Eileen Rosemary (Levering), all of whom became attorneys.

In 1953, he wrote: "While I am not now actually engaged in roping and hog-tieing wild horses, that profession helps a lot here in Congress where there are so many wild ones."

He maintained his Williston ranch until his death on Aug. 19, 1960, and his ashes rest on a nearby hill overlooking his land.

Usher Burdick was often in the news when I was growing up in Fargo. While the evening at the Scotts' home was the only time I spent with him, I treasure the memory of this great man.

Notes

- The University of North Dakota "Burdick Book Collection," a gift from his son Eugene of almost 500 books, contains volumes of late 18th- and early 19th-century English and American law and western Americana and early North Dakota books and pamphlets. Many are first or signed editions and are out of print and extremely rare. One dates from 1599.

UND also has Usher Burdick's papers as well as those of his sons Quentin, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1958 to 1992, and Eugene, a judge of the North Dakota Fifth Judicial District from 1953 until 1979.

- For more information on Usher Burdick, see "Prairie Populist: The Life and Times of Usher L. Burdick" by Edward C. Blackorby, published by the State Historical Society of North Dakota and the North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies.

Resources: www.und.edu/dept/library/Libpub/burdick.html , www.state.nd.us/hist/news/burdickbookaward.htm and www.ndsu.nodak.edu/ndsu/heiraas/ndirs/Prairie%20Populist.htm

Andrea Hunter Halgrimson writes a history column for The Forum. Readers can reach her at ahalgrimson@forumcomm.com

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