McGovern's Early Years: ‘I wanted to be a part of that struggle’George McGovern’s journey from small-town boy to political immortal cut through some of the country’s most historic times, including the Great Depression, World War II, the Vietnam War and Watergate.
By: Seth Tupper, The Daily Republic
George McGovern’s journey from small-town boy to political immortal cut through some of the country’s most historic times, including the Great Depression, World War II, the Vietnam War and Watergate.
He was born July 19, 1922, in the Wesleyan Methodist parsonage at Avon. He moved with his family to Mitchell in 1928 and graduated from Mitchell High School in 1940.
McGovern’s father, a minister, reportedly played minor-league-level baseball before embarking on his pastoral career. McGovern wrote that his father gave up baseball because there were “too many gamblers, prostitutes and drinkers associated with traveling baseball teams.”
McGovern’s childhood summers were highlighted by Christian revivals at the Holiness Campground along the James River. McGovern has been described as a religious man, but he was uncomfortable with what he called the “excessive emotionalism” of some evangelists he witnessed during his youth.
“Indeed, to this day I tend to recoil from speakers — religious, political or otherwise — who are heavy on emotion and light on reason,” McGovern wrote in his 1977 autobiography, “Grassroots.” “My own inhibited style of speech delivery may be partially explained by the discomfort experienced in listening to flamboyant evangelists at an earlier age.”
The Great Depression hit during McGovern’s preteen years and left a mark on his psyche. He recalled being with his father as they entered the farmyard of one man who was sitting on the steps of his porch with tears streaking down his dusty face. The man explained that he had just received a check for a year’s production of pigs, but it didn’t cover the cost of transporting the pigs to market.
Another transformative experience for McGovern was his participation in high school debate. It made him more outgoing and taught him to present organized thoughts extemporaneously — a skill he would call on heavily later in life.
After high school, McGovern enrolled at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell. He began dating fellow student Eleanor Stegeberg, of Woonsocket, whom he had competed against in a high school debate.
McGovern also enrolled in the federal government’s civilian pilot training program. A few weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he enlisted with the Army Air Force in Omaha.
“We were confronted with totalitarian powers bent upon the destruction of freedom, and that was all I needed to know,” McGovern wrote. “I wanted to be a part of that struggle.”
It was nearly a year later, in February 1943, when McGovern was called to begin military training. With wartime service looming, he and Eleanor were married by McGovern’s father on Oct. 31, 1943. The union lasted more than 60 years until Eleanor’s death in 2007.
McGovern was trained to fly B-24 “Liberator” bombers. He and his crew were stationed at Cerignola, Italy, and he flew 35 missions in planes that were nicknamed the “Dakota Queen” in honor of Eleanor. During one particularly memorable mission, McGovern encountered engine problems and had to land his crippled aircraft on an island airstrip in the Adiatric Sea.
His first exposure to real hunger came during the war, and it left such an impression that McGovern spent much of the remainder of his life trying to eradicate the problem.
“Italy today is probably one of the best-fed countries in the world,” McGovern told The Daily Republic in 2003, “but during World War II the men were all gone, they were off fighting, and the farms had fallen into disuse. It was a sad place.”
McGovern returned to the United States in June 1945 and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.