By Tracie Bettenhausen
Dr. Herbert J. Wilson turned 98 years old on Apr. 15, 2019.
“I’m not 100 yet. Every day is precious,” he says.
Herb’s life has been one he and his wife, Lilian, could never have dreamed up in the days, months, and years following their wedding.
The couple met during World War II.
Herb, a U.S. Air Force bombardier gunner; Lilian, a British Air Force plotter. They met at a dance when one soldier stood up to let Lilian sit because there were no more seats open. The empty seat was next to Herb.
“I said, ‘I hope I didn’t take your friend’s seat,’” Lilian says.”Herb said, ‘I’ve never seen that guy in my life!’”
The two quickly found common ground in that neither had much rhythm and dancing wasn’t their thing.
Herb was studying botany at Harvard University when he joined the war effort. After returning home to the United States, he decided to change his focus and become a doctor.
“I was on the G.I. Bill. They paid for my school, and so my decision was partly economics,” Herb says.
Partly economics and partly due to his experience losing his father at the end of the war. Herb’s dad died of pneumonia, which came at the end of a long struggle with severe rheumatoid arthritis. His pneumonia wasn’t treated with penicillin as it should have been because those drugs were being sent overseas for the war effort.
After graduating from Harvard, Herb attended Tufts University, Boston. The new doctor needed to work for two years in places chosen by the government. The first location was Florida; the second, North Dakota.
“I was asked to choose from about five different locations, and I chose the Indian Reservation,” Herb says.
“He loved the work so much, he stayed a lifetime,” Lilian says.
He was in Elbowoods, on the Fort. Berthold Reservation, for one year. Herb worked with the American Lung Association, and witnessed three deaths from tuberculosis (TB).
“TB was very prominent in Elbowoods when I arrived. The American Lung Association was trying to help out with finding the cause of this tuberculosis,” he says.
Elbowoods was one of the towns flooded under the then newly-built Lake Sakakawea, part of the effort to construct the Garrison Dam. The Wilsons then moved to New Town for the remainder of Herb’s career of 44 years.
“It was a lovely life. We had six children, and they’re all college graduates. In fact, they’re all retired except one daughter, the nurse, who is retiring at 71 years old this year,” Lilian says.
Herb, the only doctor on the reservation, worked long, irregular hours. He oversaw regular office visits, set broken bones, and delivered babies.
“We loved to go to the International Pow Wow every year, or even just a shopping place, and believe it or not, somebody always recognized me,” Herb says with a laugh. “They say, ‘You delivered me,’ or ‘You delivered my baby.’ I promise, I did not deliver that many babies as I’m told I did.”
Herb was also an ordained pastor and performed baptisms and weddings. He also did marriage counseling.
“I got them both ways — taking care of their body and soul,” he says.
Herb retired at age 75. He and Lilian moved to Bismarck in 1995, but Herb continued practicing medicine, running a free clinic 60 miles away in Selfridge, South Dakota, once a week.
He volunteered at the information desk at the North Dakota State Capitol for 25 years and now volunteers at the information desk at the North Dakota Heritage Center.
Mostly, Herb loves to work with people. He tells jokes and stories, and when asked about his time as a doctor, he tells his horse doctor joke regularly: What kind of doctor are you? A horse doctor. Oh, you mean a veterinarian? No, a horse-and-buggy doctor (referencing his long career).