WOSTER: Bernie Christenson is SD Community Foundation's most tireless advocate
I'm a fairly bright guy, but there have been long-range, visionary concepts I simply struggled to understand.
One of those, many years ago, was the late Gov. Bill Janklow's plan to wire the schools as a way to spread access to modern technology across South Dakota. We talked about that vision so long the governor started thinking I was playing stupid. Huh-uh. That was no act. I didn't get it at first. It took years, but I finally understood what he was trying to do and why it was important to do it through the schools.
Another of those visions, which I struggled with in 1987, involved the late Gov. George Mickelson's concept for the South Dakota Community Foundation. Mickelson asked a former DCI agent and state legislator, Bernie Christenson, to head the foundation and gave him the immediate task, if I recall correctly, of raising $5 million in donations to match a couple of big pledges. I had a long interview with Christenson early in his tenure at the foundation, trying to understand how the initial capital would become financing for all manner of projects to improve South Dakota and its people. As with the Janklow tech plan, I didn't get it then. Years later, I see all the local foundations and the assets gathered to fund community projects, and I get it.
I'm fairly bright, as I said, but not necessarily quick-bright.
My struggle with the South Dakota Community Foundation came to mind last weekend when I joined my two brothers for our annual task as masters of ceremonies for the South Dakota Hall of Fame brunch for the latest class of inductees. Christenson was among the inductees, and I had the honor of introducing him at the brunch. Gov. Dennis Daugaard presented Christenson and the other inductees with medallions, but I got to introduce a few members of the Class of 2013.
Well, I'd known of Christenson since I was back in Chamberlain. He was an agent stationed there for a while, and he had a reputation as a no-nonsense agent and a strong, capable lawman. I never had any professional dealings with him during that time, I'm happy to say. The family did buy a 1957 Chevy from him, though, and I drove that black-and-yellow thing to South Dakota State University for a couple of years, hauling in the cavernous trunk everything my little sister and I needed to make it through two academic semesters each year in our respective dorms. I'm sorry to say I abandoned that dependable, six-cylinder Chevy in favor of a 1962 Impala with a massive V8 engine that should have run a lot longer than it did before throwing a rod.
In Pierre, I knew Christenson as a state legislator, city commissioner, security and personnel guy for a local bank and pilot. The Hall of Fame material says he gave flying lessons to every governor since Frank Farrar. Makes sense he'd start there. Both of them were from Britton.
Christenson gave me a couple of lessons in flying -- not to say flying lessons. The first was when I rode with a group of economic development folks to a wild mustang ranch down in the Sand Hills along the South Dakota-Nebraska border in the Minnechaduza Creek -- Little White River country. The second was when he flew a four-engine aircraft out of a frozen field up near Akaska with a cargo of something like 25 tons of marijuana that had been seized. That was in 1980, and to this day, I don't know how he got that big old airplane to lift off that patch of earth.
When I introduced him at the Hall of Fame brunch, I suggested that all of those experiences, careers and adventures would pale in comparison with his work with the South Dakota Community Foundation. He was essential in getting that thing going. Gov. Mickelson was essential, too, with the personality and drive to make it happen. Even with the power of that personality, it took a tireless advocate on the ground, and it had one in Christenson.
I'd consider the Community Foundation his legacy, and, like I said, I'm a fairly bright guy.