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Omdahl: The billboard mogul with a warm message

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Harold Newman was a homemade entrepreneur who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. He passed away recently at his home in Jamestown.

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Starting with a modest sign painting venture, Harold progressed from his small shop to become the billboard mogul of North Dakota and the Upper Midwest.

Harold and I became acquainted in the 1950s when he first opened his sign business and I had launched an advertising agency in Bismarck. With both of us in marketing, it was inevitable that we would become friends. We have remained so for almost 60 years.

North Dakota is a better place because of Harold. Not only was he a community and state business leader, but he also engaged in several projects that were outright donations to society.

The most visible evidence of Newman’s creativity was construction of the world’s largest buffalo that welcomes tourists to stop and visit Buffalo City.

Harold won national acclaim when Newman Signs provided state government with free billboard space to engage tourists in levity as they traveled the empty miles across the state.

That venture started when I was driving east of Jamestown and encountered signs that warned motorist that “Gusty Winds” were likely. I thought the signs were funny, considering that gusty winds whip across the whole state on a regular basis. If this location warranted such a warning, so did the rest of North Dakota.

Well, that got me thinking about using billboards to entertain tourists as they traveled through. They may not stop, but they would surely remember North Dakota.

So I wrote a column about “gusty winds likely” and added a few other possibilities. Harold pounced on the idea. He offered to make free billboard space available if someone provided the copy.

The project was turned over to the North Dakota Tourism Division, and soon billboards were warning motorists not to go to Montana because that state was closed, not to leave North Dakota because Custer was well when he left, and a few other choice suggestions.

People magazine heard about the billboards and did a feature on the campaign. Nothing like it had been seen since the disappearance of the rhyming Burma Shave signs.

Harold had done his bit; he had to get back to his bottom line. I was disappointed that state tourism dollars didn’t continue the boards, but some taxpayers would not have thought that funny billboards were funny if financed with tax dollars.

Just a year or two ago, Harold called me to discuss resurrecting a funny billboard campaign. We met, but we never did get around to putting boards up.

Then there has been another ongoing campaign Harold and Newman Signs have been underwriting at their own expense. If you drive any distance, you will see the uplifting billboards scattered throughout the state urging us to “Be Kind,” “Have a Good Day,” “Smile” and “Be Grateful.”

Not only are these signs bright spots on dull driving days, but they also offer billboard advertisers a model in design. “Be Kind” is simple, direct and understandable at 75 mph.

Using an eight-point scale, a board should have no more than eight words or a simple picture. “Be Kind” is only two points with six points to spare. Impactful!

We could cite any number contributions that honor Harold’s life. These are just a couple of personal experiences I was privileged to share with an old friend. Hopefully, we can take to heart his enduring message to be kind, have a good day, smile and be grateful.

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Lloyd Omdahl
Omdahl is former North Dakota lieutenant governor and a retired University of North Dakota political science teacher.
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