North Dakota provided a perfect fall day for its celebrity visitor

From the Farm & Ranch Guide

'Up Sims Creek' by Rodney Nelson

Wednesday, October 8, 2008 1:34 PM CDT

I am writing this on Oct. 2. It is one of those glorious North Dakota fall days. The temperature is perfect, the wind is barely perceptible, and Sims has never looked any better. I haven’t done a whole lot today, just rode four colts and checked some cattle. Oh, by the way, I just came back from having a potluck dinner with First Lady Laura Bush at the Sims Church.

It is all because my neighbor Joel Johnson applied for a grant from an organization called Preservation North Dakota to do some renovating on the Sims parsonage. The old parsonage, built in 1884, was the original Sims Church, and is the oldest Lutheran church west of the Missouri River in North Dakota. The grant came through and poor Joel has been working like a trooper on the parsonage ever since. Just cleaning the old structure up was a big job. Countless hours of hard labor were required to remove ancient wallpaper, linoleum, and accumulated grime.

After the cleanup came painting, wallpapering, and decorating. The work was done by some members of Preservation North Dakota, a few hard working local volunteers, and former members of the church. Joel and his wife Donna were in the thick of things from start to finish. The old building now looks much as it must have a hundred years ago.

Laura Bush is the National Honorary Chairperson of Save America’s Treasures and she decided to visit the Sims Church on her North Dakota tour. Since George W. Bush became president, Laura has visited every state. North Dakota was the last one. She actually admitted she saved the best for last!

Joel and Donna heard Mrs. Bush was coming to Sims a couple weeks ago. They were sworn to secrecy for a while, but immediately went back to work on the parsonage. The last few days have been a whirlwind of activity around the church. Paint was touched up, grass mowed, windows washed, and everything put in top shape. The big bull snake that lives under the step of the old parsonage had sense enough to stay out of sight.

The First Lady’s visit must have cost Morton County a few bucks as I have never seen as much road grader work done around here in 25 years. The half mile of gravel road into the church was meticulously groomed and I don’t know how many loads of water were sprayed on the road to keep it dust free. Rotary mowers did a beautiful job on the roadside, as well.

Only a few people, members of the Sims Church, and the volunteers who did the most work were invited to the dinner. I got on the list because I am a member.

The Missus and I talked it over and wondered what we should drive to the church in order to make the best impression. Blue duck was scratched, the ’77 GMC wasn’t running, we voted against the Missus’ ’87 Honda. It came down to the ’95 Olds and we wondered how it would look if we washed it. We opted to walk.

Everyone on the list was ordered to arrive an hour before the First Lady was scheduled to appear. I set a new record, was 15 minutes early, and was the last one to show up. We were sent into the church and briefed on what to do. No one was allowed outside to greet her except Joel and Donna who were to meet her and give her a tour of the old parsonage. I was tickled that Joel and Donna, the hardest working and most unpretentious souls in the area, had this honor. Joel was understandably nervous so I walked up to him, laid my hand on his shoulder and said, “Whatever you do Joel, don’t screw up!”

The rest of us were ushered into the basement for dinner. They told us to get our food, begin eating but to make sure we still had food on our plates when Mrs. Bush came down to meet us. I knew we had an hour to kill before she came down and was in a bit of a dilemma. I was trained at an early age to eat quickly. I did the only sensible thing. All the food was, of course, first class, so I took an enormous helping and wolfed it down quickly. I then waved one of the kitchen girls over and had her refill my plate.

I was able to sit there and not touch my plate while I watched my neighbor Grant pick slowly at his. By the time Mrs. Bush came down, Grant’s plate looked like it had been attacked by a pack of Blue Heelers. Most people had pretty much cleaned up their food as well. I was the only one there that looked like I had some control over my appetite.

Mrs. Bush greeted us, shook many hands and actually relaxed and sat down to visit a bit. It was something to have someone who has walked in the finest palaces in the world, in the company of the most powerful people in the world, to sit down on a bench in the humble Sims Church and visit with a pretty humble group of prairie people.

We North Dakotans always hope our visitors leave with a favorable impression of our state. Mrs. Bush will no doubt think of North Dakota as a beautiful prairie state where the wind doesn’t blow, there is very little dust, the people are quite ordinary, but they sure eat well!