Most conservative ND legislator didn’t budge on ideals
LARIMORE, N.D. — Duane Mutch sits catawampus on the edge of the piano bench, hands folded across his lanky legs and bouncing his heel and knee to the beat of the music.
A slight smile spreads across his face as his wife, Dolores, skips her nimble fingers across the keyboard in an upbeat Schottische.
"He always was a real good dancer," Dolores says.
He grew up next door to the dance hall in the very small town of Kempton, N.D., and that gave him a distinct double advantage.
With the population just 50 on a good day, there never seemed to be enough guys to do the asking, so the young girls four years his senior were counting on him.
"That's why I was their prize, because I could dance," Duane says with a laugh.
The charm may have worn off when the older boys showed up from the neighboring towns but not before Mutch could learn his way around the dance floor.
It was the same thing years later on the floor of the North Dakota Senate, where the District 19 Republican would become the longest-running and most conservative state legislator over a span of 48 years.
And from the start, Mutch said he was a member of the John Birch Society, an ultraconservative advocacy group supporting anti-Communism and limited government.
"Being a John Bircher, that was probably the worst thing in the world," the 92-year-old said as he settled moments later at his dining room table. "I think I was the only John Bircher elected to anything in the whole United States that year. It was uncommon because we were not very popular."
But apparently his constituents were of like mind. Mutch first was elected in 1958 and lost only once in the 1970s before "they retired me by three votes" in 2006.
"I always was a conservative-thinking person. I studied history and such from when I was a kid, and they made sense to me," he said. "That's all a matter of a person's opinion what's too far right. Right is right and wrong is wrong."
"The most important thing the John Birch Society tried to do was have people become better informed on our constitutional government. They wanted people to understand the U.S. Constitution and the institution it was founded on."
Mutch said his own conservatism evolved from a life of self-reliance. He was born on a farm south of Arvilla, N.D., before moving with his family to Kempton, where his father was a bulk fuel dealer.
His father had a weak heart and didn't trust himself to drive, so he asked the sheriff at the time to give his son a license at age 12.
"He asked, and I got one. They didn't have all the regulations they have now," Mutch said. "I was a growing boy with nothing else to do but ride along with my father, so at an early age I helped him fill barrels with fuel and gasoline."
His father died when he was only 15, and then he said his mother became bookkeeper and boss. Mutch graduated as valedictorian from Larimore High School in 1943 and was drafted into the Army only about a week later.
He served in Gen. George Patton's Third Army and the Battle of the Bulge during World War II, returned home in 1946 and then "got on an oil truck and started deliveries."
He and Dolores married in 1949, and they had three children. They ran Mutch Oil Co. in Larimore for many years before handing over the business to son Paul.
The John Birch Society was more active in the region in earlier years, and members often gathered at homes for monthly meetings to talk about the issues and discuss how they could educate others.
"I don't know that there necessarily were more Birchers, but there probably was a noisier bunch in this area," Mutch said.
But for the couple, it wasn't as much about the organization as it was their conservative core and belief in individualism.
"That's the battle really simply — individualism vs. collectivism," Duane said. "An individual can do better for himself than anyone else, or he doesn't have to do it."
As they paged through an oversized scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings, posters, letters and pictures highlighting the many moments in Duane's long political career, the couple said it was a rewarding one.
He loved his work and enjoyed the opportunity to serve his base.
Though people didn't always agree with him, Duane said at least they always knew where he stood.
"They knew they could depend on what I said was going to be the truth. I had a lot of people respect me, and I probably had as many friends as most of them."
And the Republicans certainly knew where he stood in 2016. He was selected as one of three state electors to cast votes in the Electoral College.
Unfortunately, for many others living outside North Dakota, they didn't realize it would take far more than a letter to get Mutch to budge on Donald Trump.
"We got probably 1,000 letters from all over the world asking him not to vote for Trump but to vote for Hillary (Clinton) instead," Dolores said as she scooted a large box across the table to pull a sample letter from the heap.
"Can you really live your life knowing that you could have stopped him? Please cast your vote for anyone other than Trump," the envelope read.
Another letter read: "If he succeeds in becoming president, we will no longer recognize the country we love. He and his cronies will destroy the planet, the only one we have."
Along with the Christmas cards, the letters poured in for weeks.
"The postal lady got such a kick out of it. She had a big bag at the post office because, of course, they wouldn't all fit in our mailbox," Dolores said. "Everybody would say, 'What are you going to do with them all?'"
They didn't know at the time, but the letters ended up in the Christmas wreath box in the basement.
As far as presidents go, Duane says "Reagan was one of the better ones."
Of Trump: "Personally, I think he's doing a good job. ... He tells it like it is, and the truth is sometimes kind of hard to accept."