Tributes pour in for McGovernCombination of age-related ailments slowed active 90-year-old.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
George McGovern remained in a Sioux Falls hospice Wednesday and was “no longer responsive,” according to a hospice news release.
His daughter Ann McGovern, of Sioux Falls, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that her father is “nearing the end” and appears restful and peaceful. She said family members are with him.
She said the family gathering has allowed for a “mysterious, beautiful” experience.
The condition of McGovern, 90, was updated in a short statement released Wednesday afternoon by Lindsey Meyers, director of communications for Avera McKennan Hospital and University Health Center. McGovern was taken to Dougherty House Hospice on Monday.
“He is surrounded by his loving family and close friends,” the statement said. “Senator McGovern was admitted to hospice with a combination of medical conditions, due to age, that have worsened over recent months. The family would like to thank everyone for the care and compassion shown during this time.”
The statement said the family, in lieu of memorials, encourages donations to Feeding South Dakota at feedingsouthdakota.org.
McGovern was born in Avon and grew up in Mitchell. He served two terms in the U.S. House and three in the Senate and was the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972. He also mounted presidential campaigns in 1968 and 1984, but feeding hungry people was always a primary concern.
He was named the first director of the Food for Peace organization by President John F. Kennedy and later served as a United Nations ambassador supporting famine-relief efforts.
Steve Hildebrand, of Sioux Falls, is acting as the McGovern family’s spokesman. A veteran political operative who grew up in Mitchell, Hildebrand said McGovern was communicating with family members until Wednesday. He said no one knows how much longer he will endure.
“We’re not God,” said Hildebrand. “Could be three weeks, could be three hours.”
He said McGovern declined sharply in recent days and the decision was made to take him to the hospice, which is the same place that former South Dakota Gov. Bill Janklow and Sen. Jim Abdnor died this year. McGovern was not hospitalized, Hildebrand said, but went right into the hospice.
McGovern’s grandson, Matt McGovern, of Sioux Falls, said Wednesday that there was no dramatic event that led to the decision to admit George McGovern to the hospice. The elder McGovern suffered numerous health setbacks in the past year.
In October 2011 he was treated for exhaustion after touring to promote his book “What It Means to Be a Democrat.”
On Dec. 2, he fell outside the McGovern Library on the Dakota Wesleyan University campus in Mitchell an hour before a scheduled interview with C-SPAN for “The Contenders,” a program focusing on failed presidential candidates who made an enduring impact on American politics. He was rushed to Avera Queen of Peace Hospital in Mitchell and then transferred via helicopter to Avera McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls, where he remained until Dec. 7.
McGovern also spent several days in a Florida hospital in April for tests to determine why he occasionally passed out and had difficulty speaking.
This summer, as he turned 90, he gave up homes in Mitchell and St. Augustine Beach, Fla., to move closer to family in Sioux Falls.
But despite his obvious frail condition, McGovern continued to make public appearances. On Sept. 1, he attended a South Dakota State Fair debate for Public Utilities Commission candidates, including Matt McGovern.
After the debate, held outside in a tent in sweltering conditions, George McGovern called for the microphone and made an impromptu speech to the crowd, praising all five candidates and saying he had learned more about the PUC than he had ever known.
Before and after the debate, McGovern shook hands and chatted with old friends and admirers.
On Sept. 27, he attended an event in Sioux Falls christening the State Theatre the Sylvia R. Henkin State Theatre in honor of the longtime community social leader.
Henkin, 91, playfully called McGovern a “kid,” since he is a year younger than she is, and he laughed along with the crowd.
On Oct. 6, McGovern attended the opening night of the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra, which, like him, was marking its 90th year. He narrated Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait.”
McGovern wrote a biography on Lincoln that was published in 2008 as part of the American Presidents Series.
Ann Lawrence, the symphony’s director of marketing and development, said because McGovern was “not feeling so well,” the narration was recorded in advance.
But she said he attended a pre-performance birthday party and then spoke from the stage and addressed the crowd.
Sen. Tim Johnson was at the event, as were Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, the former South Dakota congresswoman, and her husband, former Texas congressman Max Sandlin. Like McGovern, all are Democrats.
Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Scott Heidepriem was also at the party, as was Argus Leader Publisher Randall Beck, Ann McGovern and other friends of the Democratic icon, Lawrence said.
She said McGovern was one of the first people at the event and one of the last to leave, signing autographs and chatting with people.
“He was wonderful. He was so articulate, and he was funny,” Lawrence said. “When he had two standing ovations that night, it was wonderful. He was sharp and spoke well.”
That may have been McGovern’s final public appearance.
Tributes being published
News of his sudden decline and admission to a hospice has appeared on websites, in newspapers and on TV and radio stations around the world. In addition to the short reports of his health, some writers are taking a longer look at his career and its impact.
Charles P. Pierce wrote a blog post for Esquire titled “The Forgotten Legacy of George McGovern.”
Pierce said he cast his first vote for president in 1972 in Massachusetts.
“I voted for George McGovern,” Pierce wrote. “I continue to this day to be prouder of that vote than of any other I ever have cast, and not merely because, by voting in my home state, I was part of the only electorate in the nation to spit in the eye of Richard Nixon, who actually was a crook.
“McGovern was the last of so many things — the last true prairie populist, the last truly antiwar war hero, and, really, the last true insurgent to rise through the primaries and capture the nomination of a major party.”
Rick Knobe, who served as mayor of Sioux Falls from 1974 to 1984 and is a longtime radio personality, also wrote a tribute to McGovern for KSOO radio’s website.
“George McGovern is a very kind man,” Knobe wrote. “Even when others have taken shots at him for his words or beliefs, he put his best foot forward and kept to the high road. …
“There are not many statesmen left in this country. George McGovern is a statesmen and he was when he held the office. Not many elected officials today are referred to in that way. Statesmen are literally a dying breed. …
“George McGovern never won a national popularity contest. In his home state of South Dakota, he probably wouldn’t win one now. However, in my opinion he is deserving of our respect and admiration.”
Retired KELO anchor and reporter Doug Lund penned a tribute to McGovern that was placed on the station’s website Wednesday. Lund said he first voted in 1968 and cast a ballot for McGovern in his successful bid for a second term in the Senate.
He said McGovern’s prominent national profile and well-spoken, thoughtful stances always impressed him as both a citizen and a journalist. Here is the conclusion:
“His departure from this world will leave a huge void in the hearts of millions around the globe, including me, who’ve been helped or enlightened by the wisdom and influence of this gentle preacher’s kid from South Dakota.”