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Notable North Dakotans William Sherman: Preacher and Teacher

Hagerty, Marilyn. "Notable North Dakotans William Sherman: Preacher and Teacher." North Dakota Horizons, Winter 1997.


It's not so much who settled North Dakota as why they stayed that interests the Rev. William Sherman.

The well-known professor and priest for more than three decades has been researching, writing and speaking about Germans from Russia and other ethnic groups of North Dakota.

Sherman says the time has come for the Germans from Russia to shine. Early generations in North Dakota had a tendency to keep a low profile, even though they are by far the largest ethnic population in much of the state-easily outnumbering descendants of Norwegians.

Now two or three generations out, many Germans from Russia have become affluent and are able to make nostalgic trips back to the Ukraine. Many are compiling family histories.

In fact, two societies are flourishing-the Germans from Russia Heritage Society has headquarters in Bismarck and the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia has an office in Lincoln, Neb.

These societies publish monthly journals that help trace ancestries and provide stories about the heritage of Germans from Russia. They also sponsor trips back to Europe.

"Geographers," Sherman says, "always start with who arrived and describe the traits and skills they brought with them. In North Dakota, I have always noticed how four or five out of six settlers left. So it's more significant to find out what kind of people stayed."

He ventures the ones who couldn't cut it got out. Those who stayed, he thinks, are the ones who were comfortable with the big skies, the remoteness and the isolation.

"After all," he says, "that is the type of terrain the Germans left behind in Russia. And that, to me is a clue to the North Dakota personality."

Much of North Dakota is a patchwork of ethnic communities, Sherman says. "There has not been as much dissemination here as in other parts of the country."

In the course of his research, Sherman has grown familiar with every nook and cranny of North Dakota. "I love this state," he says, as he talks of his current research on the type of houses built here and how they compare with the ones the North Dakota settlers left behind. He made a trip to the Ukraine last year with a fellow researcher, John Guerrero, Fargo. He hopes to get back in the spring of 1997 when the leaves are not yet on the trees and they can get better photographs of houses he sees re-created in North Dakota. These are houses that have stood for 120 years in the Ukraine, often made of sturdy, dry clay brick.

This year, Sherman's book on "African Americans in North Dakota" is being published. He wrote it with former students Thomas Newgard and Guerrero. His "Prairie Mosaic" is an ethnic atlas of North Dakota. In addition, Sherman is one of the editors and contributors to "Plains Folk: North Dakota's Ethnic History." During the centennial of North Dakota and the centennial of the Fargo Diocese of the Catholic Church, Sherman collaborated with Jerry Lamb and Jerry Ruff to write "Scattered Steeples."

Sherman teaches an upper division and graduate class in Northern Plains sociology at North Dakota State University in Fargo. He commutes to Fargo from Grand Forks where he is senior pastor of St. Michael's Catholic Church-a church with 5,000 parishioners.

He has been "Father Sherman" to this flock since 1976. Born in Detroit in 1927 of English-Irish-German background, he says he didn't really define his heritage until he came to North Dakota. "It's so important here," he says.

Sherman's brother, Edward Sherman, is a priest at St. Michael's Catholic Church at Ft. Totten, N.D. His sister, Ann Sherman, is a member of the Franciscan Sisters. They lived in North Carolina and Oregon when they were growing up. Then when their father, a federal employee, left for World War II, the family moved to Lidgerwood, N.D., where his mother had relatives.

He is a graduate of St. John's University at Collegeville, Minn., and holds a bachelor's degree in sociology from NDSU and a master's from the University of North Dakota.

Relaxed and low key, the priest is beloved in his parish. For him, one research project spawns another. Right now, he and colleagues are halfway through working on a book on Arabs in North Dakota. They have gathered all of the material on an ethnic group that Sherman says has enormous self-confidence and has left a stamp on North Dakota.

Sherman works slowly, methodically with others on his research. He is not driven by deadlines. "Grants will give you ulcers," he says. "If you have a valuable project, someone will recognize it and support it."

The priest-professor doesn't own a television set. He reads mostly regional journals and newspapers, especially the editorial pages. And he confesses, "I do find time for an occasional mystery."

Mostly his thoughts are on writing and research. He thinks politicians would do well in North Dakota to be aware of the ethnic backgrounds in each community. "Their background shapes their thinking," he says.

"North Dakotans tend to be suspicious of big government. And in this state, they still assume the politician is honest."

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North Dakota Horizons magazine is published quarterly by the Greater North Dakota Association in conjunction with the North Dakota Tourism Department. Subcriptions are $15 for one year or $28 for two years. To subscribe, or for more information, write PO Box 2639, Bismarck ND 58502; or call 701-222-0929; or link to the Horizons web site at http://www.ndhorizons.com
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