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'Saving the culture': A Ukrainian-American's journey to preserve heritage on Western Edge

Agnes Palanuk passed away Nov. 4, 2020, at 91 years old. She left behind a tremendous legacy of documenting and preserving a rich Ukrainian heritage on the Western Edge. Soon, every school library in North Dakota will have a copy of her book.

Ukrainians in North Dakota
Bill Palanuk, dressed in traditional Ukrainian attire, holds a copy of his mother's book "Ukrainians in North Dakota: In Their Voices."
Jason O'Day / The Dickinson Press
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BELFIELD, N.D. — Bill Palanuk recently fulfilled his late mother Agnes Palanuk’s dream by reaching out to the North Dakota State Library and offering to donate copies of her book "Ukrainians in North Dakota: In Their Voices." The organization agreed to make sure every school library in the state receives one, free of charge.

In an interview with The Dickinson Press, Palanuk described his mother as a teacher, journalist and historian who loved people. She had 13 siblings. After receiving a scholarship to St. Basil's Academy, a girls' Ukrainian Catholic preparatory high school in Pennsylvania, Agnes graduated valedictorian in 1947.

She taught for many years and eventually served as a school principal in Grassy Butte, North Dakota. She also penned stories as a feature writer for The Press, including the first feature about the beloved annual "Medora Musical" shortly after its debut.

Palanuk made his career in radio and said he learned a lesson from her that was important to his success.

“One thing my mother taught me, she said whenever you’re interviewing somebody, when you talk to them, formulate a question out of the content they just told you, because subliminally that puts them at ease. That shows them that you are genuinely interested in what they’re saying,” he said.

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He emphasized that faith was a top priority of both his mother and the Ukrainian settlers she wrote about.

“When the Ukrainian immigrants came to this country, the first thing they did was build a church before they ever even built a shelter for themselves. They would dig a hole in the ground, tip their buggies or wagons over on top of that hole that they dug, and they would live underneath that buggy until the church was built. The church always came first,” he said.

As a dedicated parishioner of St. Demetrius Ukrainian Catholic Church, Agnes was no different. She was a very close friend of Father Michael Bobersky, who served the parish from 1945 to 1976 and has been described as a legend in the Belfield area.

Palanuk said one of the priests at the rectory once told her the church couldn’t save her culture, that was her duty. This ignited what would become her life’s mission, which culminated with her co-founding the Ukrainian Cultural Institute (UCI) in 1980. She had a great deal of help with that project, primarily from fellow Ukrainian-American teachers. She also worked with Dickinson State University to bring Ukrainian history to the school.

“She basically set forth on a mission following that to work on preserving the Ukrainian culture and heritage in western North Dakota,” he said. “She gave seminars, put together symposiums and took four trips to Ukraine. And each time she took an entourage with her. I think just about every one of them, including my mother, found their ancestors in Ukraine and they went to the villages.”

Agnes Palanuk
Agnes Palanuk holds a copy of her book.
Contributed / Bill Palanuk

According to Agnes, most Ukrainian immigrants who came to southwestern North Dakota under the Homestead Act and built their homes out of sod were from the villages of Bilivsti, Boryshkivtsi and Trubchyn, all in the western Ukrainian province of Galicia.

In 1986, Soviet leader Mikail Gorbachev began implementing a series of liberalizing political and economic reforms known respectively as glasnost and perestroika, which enabled more Westerners to visit safely. In the book, Agnes described the first trip that took place in 1990, just before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

“For the first time in almost 100 years, the progeny of the first immigrants reconnected with their counterparts in the villages,” Agnes wrote in the book. “Our parents and grandparents gave us picturesque descriptions of the villages as they remembered them. Mrs. Pearl Basaraba departed from the village at age six. In an interview, she recalled the orchards blooming, the birds singing, the bees humming and Zbruch River was clear as a tear.”

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Pearl’s son Roy Basaraba visited his ancestral village in 1996. Basaraba said he can understand why she used to call it heaven on earth.

Agnes was a generous person and food is an essential component of Ukrainian culture, Palanuk explained.

“I would come in to go see mom and she’d ask me if I was hungry. And I said yeah, I could use a sandwich. Next thing you know, she’s preparing me a huge seven-course meal. And I’m like, 'Mom, you didn’t have to do that. I’m not that hungry,'” he said. “It used to frustrate me, but I came to the conclusion that no matter how many meals my mother fixed for me in her lifetime, no matter what that number is, I will always want one more."

By the mid-1990s, Agnes retired as UCI’s executive director to a farmhouse near Fairfield that she had restored and took on a new and equally ambitious endeavor within her ultimate mission, but hit a roadblock in 1997.

“She set forth to write the book… Well, tragedy struck. The house burned down and along with it, she lost her computer hard drive that had all her work on it. Not only that, she also had in her possession original photographs that families had submitted for inclusion in the book,” Palanuk said.

He was living out of state at the time, shifted his priorities and moved back to the area to help her. Agnes went back to work as director at the UCI and retired again in 2009 with a renewed focus on her book.

“She was probably 75 to 80% done with the book when a stranger came to visit her, and was with her until she passed in 2020. And that stranger was Alzheimer’s,” he said. “She told me one time, she said, ‘Bill, I want to write, but the words just won’t come.’ And it just broke my heart because she was such a great writer.”

She had pieces of the book scattered around her house and was struggling to bring it across the finish line. Palanuk’s wife Rebecca Lindstrom, the book’s official editor, helped Agnes seam it all together into her final masterpiece, which was published in July of 2011.

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“She set out to write this book because of its importance to her ancestors as well to the generations yet to come,” Lindstrom wrote in the book’s foreword. “With her voice recorder and her young son nestled comfortably on the seat next to her, she searched for and found the immigrant families and sat down to talk and record stories of their adventures, travels, discovering new lands and the hardships that accompanied this new life on a land untouched by human hands.”

Palanuk said he feels a spiritual connection with his mother.

"It's been a long, hard year, but I've gotten to know my mom a lot better since she passed away," he said, explaining, "We acquired all her archives that she had, and the historical documents and things."

In the springtime at some point after she passed, he climbed a cliff at Saddle Butte with his grandson.

“Going through mom’s archives like two days later, I come across a black and white picture. That one right there. And that’s my mom, the tallest one on top of Saddle Butte,” he said, pointing to a framed photograph in his office. “It’s like God winking at me.”

Palanuk said Agnes received the final sacrament of last rites on a Wednesday, and on Thursday he called the nursing home to check on her. The nurse brought the phone to her. First, he let her know that he had rediscovered his conviction to his Catholic faith.

“I said, 'Mom, I want you to know that I've been going to church regularly.' And I said, 'I'm not doing this for you. I'm doing it for me. But I do know that it's something that you've prayed for. And you'd be very happy knowing that I'm in church every single Sunday, the same church that you baptized me in,'” Palanuk said.

Then he reminded her that it was her time to go.

“I said, 'Now, Mom, it's time to go. When Dad and Grandma and Beverly (Agnes’ daughter who died of cancer in 2005), when they come for you, you go with them, it's time to go.' I said, 'You've been stubborn your whole life. You've been doing things on your terms. Now, it's time to go.' I said, 'We'll get by somehow; we'll figure something out. But when they come, you go.' And she said, ‘Okay.' And that was the last word my mom ever spoke to me,” Palanuk said. “I hung up the phone and as you can imagine, I was a mess.”

Immediately after he was comforted, he said.

“But when I hung up the phone, our oldest golden retriever comes running into where I was sitting and he goes behind me and he's jumping up at the ceiling, like somebody’s up there. He's wagging his tail. He's spinning in circles and he's jumping up and down. And then he stopped and came over and put his head on my leg. So that was pretty powerful,” he said.

Those interested in obtaining a copy of "Ukrainians in North Dakota: In Their Voices" are encouraged to reach out to the Ukrainians in North Dakota Facebook page .

Related Topics: DICKINSONUKRAINE
Jason O’Day is a University of Iowa graduate, with Bachelor’s Degrees in Journalism and Political Science. Before moving to Dickinson in September of 2021, he was a general news reporter at the Creston News Advertiser in rural southwest Iowa. He was born and raised in Davenport, Iowa. With a passion for the outdoors and his Catholic faith, he’s loving life on the Western Edge.
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