Dakota Datebook

Capitol Custodian

Monday, December 15, 2008


North Dakota government is staffed with various public officials created by constitutional or legislative processes, and these positions are normally filled by appointment, by election or by personal application, with selection made through a supervising committee. Seldom does the Legislature create a position and actually name the individual to assume it.

The Board of Administration was created to oversee maintenance of a number of public buildings, and this included the janitors at the State Capitol Building. William A. Laist Jr. was one of these janitors. Born in Germany in 1866, Mr. Laist came to the United States in 1885 and began working at the Capitol in 1893. Most often referred to as Billy, Mr. Laist was an exceedingly popular figure on the Capitol Grounds and, on March 8, 1929 the North Dakota Legislature passed Senate Bill #128.

This Bill created the position of Custodian of the Capitol Buildings whose duties were to oversee the persons employed as janitors and distribute supplies. This individual would serve as an official guide and would also act as the Capitol Grounds law enforcement officer with powers equal to that of a sheriff. To that end, he would be supplied with an appropriate insignia and uniform with an annual salary of $2,000.00 a year. But in an unusual move, Section 3 of Senate Bill 128 actually named William Laist to the position and what was even more significant, he was granted the job for life. He could only be removed for lack of good behavior and then only by the governor.

After the Capitol fire in 1930, Billy Laist went on to assume his duties in the new Capitol Building. In 1933, when salary cuts were being enforced on state workers, Billy’s pay was set in law and could not be decreased, so he voluntarily took a 20% pay cut, an act which required an Attorney General’s opinion to accomplish.

On this day, in 1936, William Laist Jr. succumbed to cancer having served 43 years at his post. He had witnessed the rise and fall of the NPL, the burning of the old Capitol Building and the construction of the new one and the tumultuous years of the mid 1930’s during the Langer Administration. Honorary pallbearers included Gov Welford and two former governors, all of the Supreme County Justices, the Attorney General, the Secretary of State and the entire Board of Administration as well as numerous other public officials and friends. He had served under a total of seventeen governors, but said the secret to his success was that he never mixed in political scraps of any kind.

By Jim Davis

The Ward County Independent, December 24, 1936
The Bismarck Tribune, December 16, 1936
The Bismarck Capital December 17, 1936

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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