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DONN GRAND PRE

North Dakotan
returns home
to write,
background novel

By Sylvia Paine
Staff Writer
The Sunday Forum
FARGO-MOORHEAD
December 9, 1979

. . .Striding down a Fargo street an Easterner now with Western values and Western clothes, Donn Grand Pre points to the shiny red Ford pickup parked along the curb.
. . ."There’s my new pickup," he says, proud.
. . .The truck will take him back to Viriginia, where he farms, but Grand Pre chose to buy it in his home state, buys his jeans here too, likes doing businesss here.
. . .In North Dakota, he believes, "businessmen still practice integrity. That's why I like to come here to spend my money. You' don't get the feeling here you're being ripped off."
. . .Integrity. That's his word now, and not only his word but his creed, "If we could inculcate that into our high level statesmen, our government officials," declares Grand Pre, once a government official himself, "we'd correct what ails our society."
. . .Integrity was not always part of his vocabulary.
. . .For 10 years Grand Pre's life was the stuff movies are made of — and might yet be made of.
. . .Alluring and available women. Swank hotels in the capitals of Europe and the Middle East. Steak and caviar and a river of wine. Business intrigues involving billions of dollars. Bribery and seduction.
. . .And death. Like a noxious ether, the scent of death tainted those glamorous years. For Grand Pre was — and proudly — a merchant of death, one of 16 men handpicked by the Pentagon to negotiate sales of American weapons.
. . .It was a long way, in both geographical and spiritual distance, from the northeastern North Dakota farm where he grew up.
. . .But Grand Pre recoiled from the stench of' corruption, recovering his soul and returned to farming, to the values and the faith of his childhood.
. . .The story is chronicled in Grand Pre's fictionalized autobiography, "Confessions of an Arms Peddler," published this fall by Chosen Books, a Christian publishing house in Lincoln, Va., He's in North Dakota to promote the book and will autograph copies Saturday, at B. Dalton's, West Acres, from 1 to 3 p.m.
. . .Is this just another tale of another born-again Christian? Another exploitation of the post-Watergate muckraking mentality? Part of a fad?
. . .Go ahead, says Grand Pre. Be skeptical. It's healthy. He's used to being questioned about whether his Christian convictions are real. After all, he dealt in collusion and subterfuge for years, chasing money.
. . ."This is one of the reasons I underplayed that (the conversion) in the book," said Grand Pre.
. . .He points to the character he calls in his book Goldie Flynn, the pseudonym of the crafty; unscrupulous middleman who became Grand Pre's mentor in arms negotiations.
. . .Flynn, a blackmailer, lusting after power and wealth, taught Grand Pre about "kissing tails...for favors, for special treatment, for power." After dealing with Flynn, Grand Pre was no longer naive.
. . .Yet near the end of his life, Flynn returned to his early Catholicism, confessed his sins, and spent an agonizing night warning Grand Pre about the evil in the arms business, urging Grand Pre to get out. Grand Pre was skeptical.
. . .But Flynn's change was genuine. "When you see someone go back to his boyhood Christianity, it really does something to you," Grand Pre says.
. . .This experience was one in a series of "steps along the way that made me reflect where I was going. Was my whole motivation the pursuit of wealth? I think it was — looking for this elusive security. I found out the hard way that isn't the way to go."
. . .He almost found out too late.
. . .He was losing touch with his six children; his marriage was deteriorating; he was unaware that his wife Ursella was being treated for cancer; he was letting his own health go. Why? The arms business was the most exciting life he had known. Never-mind that it I kept him away from home much of the time. It paid off.
. . .Today, Grand Pre argues against the undiscriminating sale of weapons to any all comers, including repressive rulers like the former Shah of Iran and to countries that may become our enemies.
. . .But the sale of weaponry is "the biggest and fastest growing business in world today," he says. In 1980, the United States expects to sell $15 billion worth of military equipment, up $1.5 million from 1970.
. . ."Carter was going to cut the proliferation of arms, and he can't, simply because it is good business and the market is there," Grand Pre explains.
. . .Recognizing that we live in "a destructive world," Grand Pre advocates a strong defense. "In order to control evil we need two forces. One is the force of arms; the other is the force of love." Strange bedfellows, but Grand Pre quotes novelist I. B. Singer in calling love "a stabilizing: force" behind the "sin, sex and revolution" that life is made of.
. . .But the proliferation of weapons is out of control because of greed, he maintains. Governments and arms dealers alike are "out for the money. It's the most highly profitable business in the world, so you sell to all comers."
. . .But it doesn't have to be that way, Grand Pre insists. He is surprisingly optimistic that change on a grand scale can come about, if individuals change, if they recover their integrity.
. . .He cites the second assassination attempt on former President Gerald Ford's life as another of the steps that led to his change of heart — a signal that things were awry.
. . ."It isn't society that's gone wrong," he decided. "It's some of the people in it, or some people at the highest levels of government who have so corrupted themselves. This kind of hanky panky or collusion or bribery, when tolerated at the highest level, affects the whole society."
. . .He did his part, got out while he could, told his story in hopes that it might make a difference.
...The book, says Grand Pre, is "a sort of catharsis, a cleaning of my mind if not my soul. I'll get it out of the way and get on with writing."
. . .Writing must be in his blood, he figures, since he put himself through Dickinson State College as wire editor of the Dickenson Press.
. . .And he has already gotten on with writing, explaining arms negotiations in a journalistic fashion in "The Golden Calf," exploring North Dakota history through a novel about growing in Rolette County, "The Brothers Iverson," and humorously depicting his own new life in "Confessions of a Madison County Farmer," all works in progress.
. . .He comes back to North Dakota partly to write at the home of his parents Mr. and Mrs. Leo Grand Pre, Dickinson; partly to visit the scenes he needs for his new novel; partly to get away from the "militaristic-materialistic" hedonism he finds on the East Coast.
. . ."I think we have grass roots integrity in the Middle West," he says. "These are the people who have earned the name 'Silent Majority;' United, they could become a power for good.
. . ."But we have to get outside ourselves. We have to think more broadly than self-interest"
. . .A return to the country's foundling principles — democracy, decentralized government, individual responsibility — a return to Christian principles too, might work the miracle of global change, Grand Pre seems to say.
. . .If we could wake up and devote the day to doing what we can to implement these teachings, and if we all were to do that just a little, we'd get back to the integrity of the nation." If, as John F. Kennedy said, we each "lit a candle in the darkness, we'd get on the road to a society we'd like better, and we'd like ourselves better. "
. . .This, he says, is what he and his family are trying to do with their National Association for Deaf-Blind Children, a charitable organization they founded. On their 300-acre farm, they are establishing a center where multiple handicapped children can learn and play, where their parents can learn how to help them, and where teachers can be trained to educate them.
. . .The Grand Pres' adopted son, Thaddeus (called "the tadpole") is multiple handicapped.
. . .Grand Pre's transformation is a spiritual Cinderella story, except that instead of a glass slipper there are those cowboy boots and the feather-banded ten-gallon hat gallon hat — big enough to contain the courtly manners and the magnetism, the slightly raspy, slightly twangy voice that quotes from Betrand Russell and from "I'm OK, You're OK," that discusses handicapped children and the Shah of Iran.
. . .It all fits.
. . .Grand Pre's life is likely to get even more interesting, thanks to his book, which has already brought him attention in the Washmgton Post and other East Coast papers, which has led to talk show dates and is being considered for a film.
. . .Has success, or at least the threat of success, spoiled the 53 year-old author? Well, he hasn't outgrown his roots, if that's any indication.
. . ."I'm still in love with North Dakota," says Grand Pre, who has always maintained his voting residence, his permanent home, in the state.
. . ."I've been in 69 countries; conducted negotiations in 17, and I still think the best spot in the world is North Dakota. It's because of the people."

 

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