'Success story:' A visit with Rudy

Gessele, Chris. "'Success Story:' A visit with Rudy." Hazen Star, 25 August 2011, 15 & 16.

Ninety-four-year-old Rudolf "Rudy" Hildebrand is battling gout, a painful condition caused by the buildup of uric acid, in his left foot.

"I'm getting along- but it makes me walk like an old man," Rudy said with a giggle.

Known for his sense of humor and decades of service to his community, nearly everyone in Mercer County knows Rudy. Most days he can be found strolling along Main Street, Hazen, hands clasped behind his back, and ready with a joke.


Rudy turned 94 on Aug. 6. He has lived in Mercer County for 92 of those years, and has seen much change come to the landscape.

Rudy was born Aug. 6, 1917, to Simon and Salome Hildebrand near Parkston, S.D. The ninth of 10 children, Rudy moved with his family to a house along the Missouri River about 20 miles north of Hazen in 1919.

Rudy and his siblings attended school in a one-room country schoolhouse a little more than one mile from his home. He and his siblings would walk to and from school every day, since there wasn't much for a road and his parents' car wouldn't operate when it was cold outside.

"We would trample that path, and as new snow came we would develop that trail ... so when new snow came we would have the trail built up," Rudy said.

Rudy's school included children from five different families, and was in a district that included six one-room country schools. A teacher taught about five different grades in Rudy's school, which Rudy found to his benefit.

"This teacher would put forth her schedule and her lessons to the older grades, we kids in the younger grades would hear her presentation to the older classes. And we would learn many things in a lower grade that the upper grades were learning," he said.

For entertainment, he remembered playing yard games such as throwing a ball over the schoolhouse to friends on the other side. It was a far cry from the electronic entertainment of today.

"There was no electricity, ever. We couldn't have all that," Rudy said. "Computer games, I still don't understand them."

Rudy didn't know any English before he started school, but picked up bits and pieces of the language through conversations his older sisters had with a teacher staying with the Hildebrands.

After eight years of school, Rudy starting helping out on the farm.

"If we had gone to high school, it would have meant room and board someplace. My folks didn't have the money, they couldn't afford that," Rudy said.


One of Rudy's older sisters sang in the choir at St. Peter's Church, located about 12 miles northeast of Hazen. When Rudy was 14, his sister told him they needed more female voices in the choir.

“They made me sing along with the alto section, the women. But when I was 14 we didn't have this girl-boy relationship you see today. It was more like 'throw a rock and run.' Then my voice changed. When I might have been old enough to sing with the girls, then my voice changed and they threw me out,” he laughed.

After St. Peter’s disbanded, Rudy transferred to Peace Lutheran Church in Hazen and started singing in their choir. He also sung in the Knife River Chorale the last 25 years, and volunteers his vocals singing German-English tunes at the Knife River Care Center every Monday.

On Aug. 7, Rudy was honored at Peace Lutheran Church for 80 years of singing in choirs.
“I enjoyed singing,” Rudy said. “I have always enjoyed being with people, and being where people are. And I suppose the singing is part of that. It gave me a chance to be involved in something where people were.


Rudy met Regina Baier, a clerk at the general store in Hazen, in the early 1940s. She grew up in Oliver County south of Hazen and moved with her retired parents into Hazen. Saturday nights were usually very busy in town, Rudy said, and one such night he approached Regina in the store with a proposition.

“‘If you're going to work for nothing for these people, you might as well come out to the farm and work for me,'" he recalled telling her. “And she did. For whatever strange reason, there was some attraction."

Not long after, the call for Missouri River flood control became greater and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started construction of the Garrison Dam. The Hildebrand’s river-bottom farm would be flooded in the Garrison Reservoir, so they sold their farm to the Corp and rented it from them until moving in 1953.

Rudy and Regina married in 1944 and moved to a farm along North Dakota Highway 200 north of Crossroads. They farmed and ranched there for 43 years before retiring and moving to Hazen in 1996. The couple had one daughter, Linda, who now lives in Bismarck. Regina died in October 1999.


As a youngster, Rudy did most of the fieldwork with horses. As tractors became more widely-utilized, farmers began to burn more fuel. Standard Oil Company was the prominent fuel supplier and took a margin of 10 percent profit, Rudy recalled.

North Dakota Farmers Union encouraged farmers in the area to form their own oil company. After one such company was formed in Beulah, Rudy found 18 people to buy shares of the company to establish a Farmers Union Oil Company in Hazen. Rudy is the only surviving charter member of Hazen Farmer’s Union.

People considered the idea “radical,” Rudy said.

“But I pushed, and I found people to help push. And look at the place we have today, what a success story that is.”

Rudy also helped propel the popularity of rural electrification. Most of the rural power came from Garrison Dam at that time. Otherwise, people would spend 27 cents on a two-gallon can of kerosene to light lanterns. Rudy worked to sell memberships asking for pledges of at least $5 per month of electricity from the co-op.

It was hard to sell, Rudy said. But the idea slowly caught on, and soon people were buying electricity for lights in their home, then and electric refrigerator, then electric washing machine and then stoves.

“And before they knew it, they were well above $5 a month,” Rudy said. “What a success story it’s been.”

Rudy also served as president of the Hazen Senior Citizens Club for 14 years, during a time when the club had over 200 members. Many of the members were in their 50’s, Rudy recalled.

Now, there are fewer than 50 members, and many people feel 60 years isn’t old enough to join the club.

“Society has changed that much. People are staying active that much longer,” Rudy said. “And this business of being a senior citizen has lost all influence and interest.”

Rudy also served on the Hazen Farmers Elevator Board of Directors for 24 years, two terms on his church council, and two terms on the Mercer County Soil Conservation District Board.

“I felt I was community-minded. We were both very community-active people,” he said of himself and Regina.


Rudy also took an interest in politics. His political involvement began with the Non-Partisan League before they joined the Democratic Party.

“So now they call me a Democrat,” Rudy said. “But I always had an interest in what went on.”

Rudy served as the party’s District party chairman for 14 years, and was successful in getting candidates elected to the State Legislature. He eventually ran for a seat himself on two different occasions, though he was unable to get elected.

During Rudy’s Senate run in 1974, he and his campaign committee devised the plan to push for reclamation of mined land. Opponents used the notion against him, questioning the cost of reclamation and who would pay for it.

“And I was radical. Boy, did my opponents hit me over the head for that one,” Rudy recalled, “‘Well, regardless of what it’s gonna cost. In the end, we will reap the advantage of having that land back in production.’ They couldn’t understand that.”

Two years later, the party of his former opponents introduced reclamation legislation and it passed, making North Dakota one of the first states to have a spoil bank reclamation program.

“Sixty-seven percent of all the land that has been mined and reclaimed has a better state of production today than it did before it was mined,” Rudy said. “And what a success story that has been.”

Rudy is frustrated with the partisanship of today’s political arena.

“It is partisan, and that’s the only thing that counts anymore,” Rudy said. “I may be wrong, but I’m so disappointed, even in Congress. Everybody’s worried about their own ass, about getting re-elected and keeping their party intact. They don’t care about the work of the nation, or what they owe the people. It doesn’t seem to matter anymore. And that’s what I’m disappointed with these days.”

Rudy also explained what he diagnosed as “apathy of the voting membership of the nation.” He said that only 43.7 percent of North Dakota’s eligible voters cast their vote in the last major election.

“They don’t care; they’re not involved,” he said. “It’s sad.

Rudy also stressed the importance of supporting one’s own community, and the businesses that help make up the community.

“So many of these people are so independent. They will drive to Bismarck to buy groceries. They will not support our local people. And that’s wrong,” he said. “Stanton, Zap, Golden Valley – they all once had a grocery store, but the local people would not support it. And they lost it.”


There are 23 residents in the Knife River Care Center that are 90 years or older. Three of those residents are older than Rudy. He partly attributed his longevity to his mother’s side of the family. Five of the six women in her family lived past 90. His mother mowed her own lawn until she was 92, and died at age 96.

Rudy also stays physical active. He used to walk to and from the hospital for a two-mile stroll, but now just stays close to home.

“I walk a block. If I feel good enough, I walk another round. If I feel like it, I walk another round. But I’m always close to home,” he explained. “I still enjoy the exercise.

In addition to his active lifestyle and genetics, Rudy, a prostate cancer survivor, also credited his religion and staying mentally active.

“I believe in my religion very strongly. And I like to explain that the good Lord’s been good to me, and he still is.

“Part of it, you have to use what little brain you have left. Stay involved. So I still like to sing in the choir. It’s a challenge, and I enjoy it. And that’s part of it.”

Rudy likes to say that last year, his New Year’s resolution was to “never hurry.” He liked it so much that he re-adopted that resolution again this year. He can feel time’s toll on his body now more than ever.

“I can tell this last year has made some changes,” he acknowledged. “My strength is deteriorating. I’m not as strong. So I know the trend is there – there’s no need to deny it.”

While he no longer hurries, Rudy has no intentions of slowing down. He told us of a friend who no longer puts any effort into remaining physically or mentally active. It breaks Rudy’s heart to see that.

“For all practical reasons, he’s dead. He’s still breathing, but that’s all. I don’t want to go like that,” Rudy said. “I used to say … ‘Have a blast while you last.’”

A photo from the mid-1900s, clockwise from front: Regina and Rudy Hildebrand, their grandson Jeff Sandeen, and daughter Linda Sandeen.
Some summer days Rudy Hildebrand can be found sitting on his front step, just watching the world pass by.

Rudy Hildebrand's stemware and dishware collection includes a 1917 plate from the Expansion Mercantile Co., a store from the now extinct town of Expansion that sold groceries and hardware. The plate was a Christmas gift from the store that year, and purchased by Rudy's late wife, Regina, at an auction sale. Rudy has also accumulated a small pile of stuffed animals he plans to give away to children, as well as several stacks of books. He never pays much for any one item. "I'm a scrounger," he said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hazen Star.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller