By Jared Ritz
You've seen them around.
A newer model pitch black Cadillac with THE DOGG on the plates. A white Mercury Sable cruising around named BLON D. You've probably even seen vehicles with plates fancier than the car they're on.
Why are personalized plates so popular in Havre?
"To make a statement about themselves," said Kris Keller, clerk at the Hill County Treasurer's Office, which deals in all matters license plate, personalized or not. "We have so many. I think we sell more personalized plates than regular ones. At least it seems that way."
Although not completely accurate, Keller's statement isn't completely off the wall, either.
Out of the 16,673 people who live in Hill County, 1,665 of them have personalized plates. That's one-tenth of the entire population of our county cruising around with IBCUTE and YEABUDY flanking their cars.
The cost of a personalized plate is $37 added onto to your regular licensing costs. Some people think it is worth the cost, some don't; but with more than 85,000 sold in the state of Montana last year, it doesn't look like they are going away anytime soon.
Some of the most popular phrases, according to Keller, involve initials, advertising or humor.
"There's a lot of funny ones out there," she said.
The women at the treasurer's office have also seen their share of plates that didn't make it past the censors.
Some plates are turned down by the state Title and Registration Bureau in Deer Lodge. Keller isn't exactly sure what designates whether or not a plate is OK, but "anything that's gross, or offensive to other people" usually won't make it.
She told a story about a man in his golden years who wanted a phrase referring to his declining libido on his license plate, which was deemed too racy by those in charge. Another man's attempt to put "barfing" on his plate was thwarted as well.
Most people come up with less objectionable plates.
"It's kind of what identifies a car," said Kay Norenburg, Rudyard resident and owner of a new blue Lincoln with "BSSBGGY" on the plates.
Norenburg likes the fact that personalized plates give people some identity while maintaining their anonymity. To that extent, she used Bess, her middle name, rather than Kay. She does wish she had changed one thing on it, though.
"A lot of people think it's boss's buggy," she said. "I think I should have put an E' in there."
Laurie Catt, administrative assistant to the chancellor at Montana State University-Northern, thinks personalized plates are better at helping people identify the car more than they do the person.
"It's kind of taken on a personality," she says of her 2001 blue Volkswagen bug with the plates "BLUBERY".
Catt says the name just came to her from looking at it. She thought the color and shape pointed to the name.
Some people mess it up, she said, and she hopes that this explanation may help.
"It's blueberry, not blubbery like a whale," she said.
Since getting the plate in the spring of 2000, the car has taken on an identity of its own.
"People don't refer to it as your car," she said. "They refer to it as a living object."
Catt told a story about how a few months after she got the plate, her car was vandalized during a trip to Great Falls. One of the side-view mirrors was kicked out, scratches were everywhere, and, according to Catt, it looked like someone had ridden a skateboard across the hood.
When she arrived home, all of her friends were upset about the vandalism but the word "car" was never used.
"How could somebody do that to Blueberry?" is what she heard.
Gabe Musson's license helps to identify him literally.
The Yummy Yogurt manager purchased his red '95 Toyota pickup from a friend, J.R. Morse, about nine months ago. Morse, a recent Havre High graduate, got the pickup his freshman year and has been recognized in it ever since.
"When I first bought it, people were waving at me that I didn't know," Musson said, adding that the waves were often followed by a "what is he doing driving J.R.'s truck" look.
Musson thought that the plate NOT JR was a perfect solution to his problem, and said that people caught on pretty quick. It's a pretty good joke, too.
"I thought it was pretty funny," he said. "J.R. thought it was hilarious."
Haily Donoven, who will be a Havre High sophomore in the fall, has a license plate that can only be called an amazing feat in linguistic ability. GIMAQT. Say it out loud: G-I-M-A-Q-T. That's five words on one plate, and she didn't even meet the seven-character maximum.
Donoven chose to get personalized plates to set her green Ford Escort apart.
"I didn't want to have just numbers on it," she said. "I wanted something different."
Whether it's people putting their ranch brand on their plate or their favorite sports team or something so imaginative and out of this world that they are the only ones who know what it means, people who get personalized plates get them for a reason.