Legislator Curt Jones, and all of his old-time stories, will be missedArt Jones was a Marshall County farmer whose last year in the South Dakota Senate coincided with my first year as a legislative reporter. Art was a Democrat and a staunch supporter of the rural electric cooperatives. I met him during that 1970 session, but I didn’t have regular contact with him.
By: Terry Woster, The Daily Republic
Art Jones was a Marshall County farmer whose last year in the South Dakota Senate coincided with my first year as a legislative reporter.
Art was a Democrat and a staunch supporter of the rural electric cooperatives. I met him during that 1970 session, but I didn’t have regular contact with him.
My boss with The Associated Press, Jim Wilson, covered the Senate most days. That left me with the House of Representatives. That was interesting duty, except that with twice as many members as the Senate, the House’s floor debates tended to be longer, stronger and more than a little less controlled than those in the Senate. Sitting in the House press box for long stretches every afternoon and many evenings left me little time to get to know senators.
When Art left the Senate, his boy, Curt, stood for election and won the seat. Curt was a young man when he came to Pierre for his first session, and he looked the part of a farm boy. Even in the dead of winter, which is when South Dakota runs its legislative sessions, you could see the tan line on his forehead where his cap must have rested virtually all of the time he was working in the sun. The shock of dark hair that never seemed to stay in place accented the line between sun and shade.
He was loose-gaited, a man accustomed to striding across the uneven ground of a plowed or cultivated field. He had big hands, shoulders as wide as former Celtic Kevin McHale’s and a ready, somewhat bashful smile. Combined with soft, dark eyes, that smile made you figure that if you got to know him, you’d get to know a plain-spoken, decent South Dakotan. You’d figure right.
Curt died the other day at age 75. Perhaps fittingly in the new media age, I learned of the passing of one of my first legislative heroes from Bob Mercer’s blog, Pure Pierre Politics. I hadn’t seen Curt for a few years, and while I have talked to him numerous times as we’ve aged, the first image I had when I read the blog entry was of the young farmer I first saw in 1971.
He came to Pierre to represent the people of his part of the state. For all the years I watched him, he did that with energy and integrity. He believed in the principles of the Democrat Party, but he crossed political lines to get things done, and eventually he became a close and trusted friend of former Republican Gov. Bill Janklow. They didn’t agree on everything. Shoot, they didn’t agree on a lot of things, but neither was afraid to speak his piece, and I always thought that showed a remarkable confidence between them.
I was still covering the House during Curt’s first couple of years in Pierre, but I managed to get to know him through a Yankton legislator named Don Bierle. Bierle was a Republican, a lawyer and one of the savviest lawmakers I covered in 40 years of watching the South Dakota Legislature. He was outgoing and lively, and he’d done a bit of sport writing in his early life. That gave him a tolerance, for newspaper people. He invited me to stop by his Senate desk after the floor session late one afternoon.
I found Bierle talking with Curt Jones. They were leaning back in those big, padded legislative chairs, laughing and talking and telling stories. Curt would tell a story about some political deal from his father’s day, and Bierle would match it with one from the Yankton area. They invited me to sit in. That was the first of some of the most interesting conversations I have ever had in my years as a Capitol reporter. These two guys would argue tax policy, agriculture exemptions, lawyers’ fees and the structure of state government. Then they’d tell stories they’d learned from the real old-timers. I’d just sit and drink it all in. I stopped by every chance I got.
When I left the news business last year, I said what I’d miss most would be the people. Curt Jones was one of the people I meant.
Terry Woster’s column appears Saturdays and Wednesdays in The Daily Republic.