William Henry Arnold (1925-2003): An everyday hero (52 Ancestors #10)

Posted for the blog meme 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks hosted by Amy Johnson Crowe of No Story Too Small.

My father, William (Bill) Henry Arnold, was the seventh child of Peter Ernest and Magdalena (Wehner) Arnold. He was baptized at St. Thomas Church in Gladstone, North Dakota, a few weeks after his February 21, 1925 birth.[1] His birth was officially registered with the North Dakota Department of Health in January 1943, less than two months before his 18th birthday. Because it was a delayed registration, the certificate refers to the aforementioned church baptismal record, a notarized affidavit from John Sabo, identified as a close friend and neighbor of the Arnold family in 1925 when Bill was born, and an affidavit on the certificate itself of “attending physician, parents, nearest relative or other person living at the time and having knowledge of the facts of this birth.” Bill’s father, Peter Arnold, signed the birth record affidavit, indicating that the information provided came from family records and personal knowledge.[2]

Bill attended Gladstone public schools beginning, most likely, in 1930 or 1931. Though Bill and his siblings knew only German when they started school, they had to learn English very quickly because that was the language used in the school. I haven’t yet found information for how many children were enrolled in Gladstone’s school system during those years, but Bill’s 1933 First Communion class of 34 children[3] is a reasonable proxy (i.e., if there were 30 children in his grade and there were 12 grades between elementary and high school, the total population of the school per year during that period was approximately 360.)

A side note: Benedictine sisters taught in Gladstone’s public schools for about 14 years from the mid-1930s until about 1949, mostly because the school board couldn’t afford to pay lay teachers during the depression years.[4] That practice led to a lawsuit, Gerhardt v. Heid, filed in Dickinson, North Dakota, in 1936. The plaintiff sued on two counts: first, to prohibit the sisters from wearing religious garb when they were teaching in public schools, and second, to stop school board payments to the sisters. The North Dakota Supreme Court, later in 1936, agreed with a lower court ruling that Gladstone schools were neither sectarian nor under sectarian control. The battle didn’t end there: a 1944 anti-garb bill was withdrawn a day after it was introduced; a similar bill was proposed in 1947, but was withdrawn due to pressure from a coalition of Protestants and Catholics; in 1948, the state’s electorate passed an anti-garb initiative. The 1948 law prompted negotiations between the bishop of the Bismarck (North Dakota) diocese, local religious orders, and the Vatican to allow Catholic sisters to wear secular clothing when they were teaching. Catholic hierarchy encouraged transition for teaching sisters, and some orders modified their rules to allow their sisters to wear non-religious clothing when teaching.[5] It is not clear whether the Benedictine order forbade its sisters from wearing secular attire to comply with the 1948 law or whether the Gladstone citizenry decided to employ lay teachers in its schools but, whatever the circumstances, the Benedictine sisters withdrew from teaching in Gladstone’s public schools in 1949.[6]

William Henry Arnold, approx. 1944

William Henry Arnold, approx. 1944


Bill was 19 years old when he graduated high school on May 26, 1944.[7] There were 11 students in his graduating class,[8] including two who were likely Bill’s first cousins: Kathryn Wehner and Helen Focht. Bill enlisted in the Army on June 22, 1944, and following basic training at Fort McClellan, Alabama, was deployed to the European theater before year’s end. He was discharged as a Sergeant on 14 March 1946. He was awarded several decorations for his service, most notably a Purple Heart for a wound sustained in the Ardennes campaign and a Bronze Star Medal with Cluster for heroic action in the battle of Germany.[9]







Left photo: Bill & Frank; Right photo: Frank, Walt, Ray & John

Left photo: Bill & Frank; Right photo: Frank, Walt, Ray & John


After the war, Bill and his brothers, Frank, Walt, Ray, and John, ran the Arnold Brothers Service in Minneapolis, Minnesota.[10] They pumped gas, serviced motor vehicles, and towed trailers from one place to another. Bill later returned to Dickinson where he worked on the construction of a multi-story hotel.









1950 Arnold, William & Armbrust, Irene marriage record


On May 3, 1950, Bill married Irene Armbrust at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Dickinson.[11] The newspaper account of their wedding states that Bill was employed as a farmer and a mechanic.[12] It was probably about this time that he started working at the Stark Motor Company in Dickinson.

Bill and Irene lived in several rented apartments and houses before they purchased their first home[13] in about 1957. It was a small house: kitchen, living room, bathroom and two bedrooms. They built a third bedroom in the basement of the house to provide a little more space for their growing family.

In 1965, Bill and Irene decided to move to Great Falls, Montana to take advantage of better pay there than was available in Dickinson. Our family lived with Aunt Ann[14] for several weeks during that summer until the house Mom and Dad purchased could be finished. We moved into the new house shortly before the start of the 1965-1966 school year.

Bill worked at Bison Ford in Great Falls from 1965 when he started there as an auto mechanic until he retired in 1989 as foreman of the dealership’s large truck shop. He and Irene were members of the local Eagles club, where they contributed many hours of volunteer service. Bill was president of the local club for one year and is credited with establishing the Retired Eagles Activities Club. He was Irene’s biggest supporter for her Eagles Auxiliary activities during the 1970s and 1980s, and especially when she was state president in 1990-1991.[15]

William & Irene Arnold, about 1996

William & Irene Arnold, about 1996

Bill was first and foremost a homebody. He was proud of his home and was careful about repairing and repainting the exterior of the house after all-too-frequent hail storms. He was equally conscientious about the yard and spent many evenings moving sprinklers from one area to the next to ensure the grass stayed green throughout spring and summer. One of my fondest memories of our home is that Mom would measure out the ingredients for a double or triple batch of cookies (we were a large family!), but it was Dad’s task (after a long day at work) to stir everything together and bake the cookies. Dad usually baked at least one batch right after supper, so everyone in the family could enjoy a cookie or two before bedtime. We children might have been sent to bed but, as the baking continued throughout the evening, I’m sure all of us were wishing for just one more cookie!

Dad was diagnosed with lung cancer shortly after he retired. He had surgery to remove a portion of one lung; that was followed by a series of radiation treatments to prevent the cancer from spreading. He recovered fairly quickly, just in time to face a new challenge. Mom had a severe stroke in early 1992. She was subsequently wheelchair bound and dependent on others for almost everything. Dad was there: he helped Mom with her personal and mobility needs, took her to a nearby mall so she could walk with the aid of a cane, and kept the house and yard in order, all the while providing advice and assistance to his children and grandchildren.

Declaring my dad a hero is an understatement. He was such a modest, unassuming person that I’m sure he would dismiss the accolade, but that doesn’t make it any less true. He was gentle, kind, patient, funny, ingenious, and industrious—these and many other attributes helped him deal with a daunting variety of challenges—soldier, husband, parent, provider, caretaker, and so much more.

William Henry Arnold died in his home on April 27, 2003. Survivors included his ten children William, Wanda, Wynne, Laura, Sandra, Kelley, Kevin, Penney, Darla, and Ryan, 13 grandchildren, and 3 great grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his wife Irene in September 2000; his parents, sister Margaret, and brothers Antone and Peter.[16] He and Irene are buried at Highlands Cemetery in Great Falls, Montana.

[1] Family record: certificate of baptism dated 15 March 1925 from St. Thomas Church, Gladstone, North Dakota.
[2] Family record: certificate of birth for William Henry Arnold, certified on 4 April 1950 by the state health officer and state registrar as a true and correct copy of the delayed record of birth.
[3] 1882-1982 Gladstone Centennial, Dickinson, ND: Service Printers, 66.
[4] 1882-1982 Gladstone Centennial. Dickinson, ND: Service Printers, 77.
[5] Grathwohl, L. (1993). The North Dakota anti-garb law: Constitutional conflict and religious strife. Great Plains Quarterly, Summer 1993, 187-202.
[6] 1882-1982 Gladstone Centennial, 77, previously discussed.
[7] Family record: high school diploma awarded to William Henry Arnold on 26 May 1944.
[8] 1882-1982 Gladstone Centennial, Dickinson, ND: Service Printers, 70.
[9] Family record: Army separation qualification record dated 14 March 1946.
[10] Composite image of several photographs related to the Arnold Brothers Service. The photo of Frank, Walt, Ray, and John comes from the family album maintained by Clarice Arnold.
[11] Personal record: marriage license issued at Dickinson, Stark, North Dakota and certificate of marriage from St. Patrick’s Church, Dickinson, Stark, North Dakota.
[12] Undated/unsourced wedding announcement for William Arnold and Irene Armbrust. Likely source: Dickinson Press, May 1950.
[13] The home was located at 1076 Carroll Street, Dickinson, North Dakota.
[14] Anna A. Arnold (1916-2005): On her own terms and Lasting Lessons.
[15] Obituary for William Henry Arnold. Great Falls Tribune, April 29, 2003.
[16] William Henry Arnold obituary, previously discussed.

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