HAMIEL: Janklow’s legacy: He got things doneWhen I first saw Bill Janklow in the early 1970s, he talked like a machine gun, smoked cigarettes as though there was no tomorrow and physically looked like a cross between Buddy Holly and James Dean — tousled hair, horn-rimmed glasses, and curled lip.
By: NOEL HAMIEL, Guest columnist
When I first saw Bill Janklow in the early 1970s, he talked like a machine gun, smoked cigarettes as though there was no tomorrow and physically looked like a cross between Buddy Holly and James Dean — tousled hair, horn-rimmed glasses, and curled lip.
As a would-be politician, there was something about him that was startlingly different.
Was he a rebel with a cause? It appeared so to me.
Later, as his campaign for attorney general wore on in 1974, it became obvious that this high school drop-out and former Marine was cut from an entirely different political cloth. He bristled with aggressiveness and passion, speaking in such a way that few dared to challenge his statements. We in the press corps later learned that if Janklow’s shoot-from-the-hip approach was occasionally inaccurate, it was always a bull’s-eye for the next edition.
What I didn’t know then was that South Dakota was about to experience a politician it had never seen the likes of before. Not even close.
The other day, after Janklow’s announcement that he was dying of brain cancer, a newspaper colleague asked me why I thought Janklow was this state’s best governor, an opinion I had written in a column years before retiring from newspapering.
The reason, I said, was because he got things done and mostly, they were the right things for South Dakota.
It really doesn’t matter which chief executive is being debated; there will always be differences of opinion. Peter Norbeck, from my reading of history, was a great governor.
So was Arthur Mellette. Dick Kneip certainly was among our best, as was George Mickelson, whose term was tragically cut short by an airplane accident. Janklow’s accomplishments in the areas of economic development set him apart.
For example, if the state hadn’t been able to purchase railroad lines owned by the bankrupt Milwaukee Railroad, and then lease them back to Burlington Northern, South Dakota’s ability to ship commodities would have been severely crippled. Janklow’s initiative included calling a special session to head off the crisis.
His leadership in changing state usury laws and inviting Citibank to South Dakota is likely his most impactful initiative. The ensuing credit card center established by Citibank in Sioux Falls was huge, and other credit card operations followed.
Not all of his initiatives were met with near universal approval. In 1983, when he pushed to close the University of South Dakota/Springfield, I joined with many others in the southeastern corner of the state to oppose his legislation. As publisher of the Yankton Press & Dakotan in those days, I saw the closure of USDS and transition to a prison as a step back for the state and the region. It was a long, hard fight, and I’ll never forget the rally USDS supporters staged on the steps of the state capitol as we hoped to sway public opinion and the votes of key lawmakers.
We lost that fight, but Janklow didn’t always win; it just seemed like it.
He was confrontational and controversial. He liked to debate and his personality suited his chosen professions — lawyer and politician.
Far less well known were his acts of kindness. The free legal advice he rendered for those who couldn’t pay for it, or the number of young people — including American Indians — who went to college because Janklow found a way for them to obtain tuition. He did those things quietly.
Not so quiet was the “BJ the DJ” shows he did all over the state at his own expense to raise money for those who were victims of cancer or vehicle or farm accidents. His collection of 1950s rock ’n’ roll records was large, and he put it to good use.
When he was attorney general, he found a way to make the bathrooms in the state Capitol handicapped accessible. When he had invited a disabled visitor from the Rosebud Indian Reservation to visit the Capitol, she had great difficulty using the restrooms. Janklow changed that — long before the Americans with Disabilities Act.
For those of us fortunate enough to have witnessed our state’s evolution over the past 40 years, the Janklow influence and impact have been inescapable. It might seem unfair that he has been afflicted with an incurable cancer. Yet he has packed more into his 72 years than most, and South Dakota has been the beneficiary.
Longtime South Dakota newspaperman Noel Hamiel is a former editor and publisher of The Daily Republic.