Stories told at services reveal McGovern as father, grandfather, friendMcGovern expressed his desire to see downtown Mitchell prosper, according to two friends at his prayer service Thursday. And McGovern’s care for his hometown continued to be a theme at his Friday funeral.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
SIOUX FALLS — George McGovern was concerned about a lot of things: war, peace, feeding hungry people and ensuring all Americans had access to the political process.
But he never forgot his hometown. In fact, McGovern expressed his desire to see downtown Mitchell prosper, according to two friends at his prayer service Thursday. And McGovern’s care for his hometown continued to be a theme at his Friday funeral.
Steve Hildebrand, a Mitchell native who achieved national recognition for his work as a political consultant, said McGovern congratulated him about his new coffee shop/café in Sioux Falls but said more such businesses are needed in Mitchell.
“He never stopping advocating for Main Street Mitchell,” Hildebrand said. “He’d say, ‘What are we going to do for Main Street Mitchell? We’ve got to fix up that town.’”
It was one of several stories offered during Thursday’s prayer service and Friday’s celebration of his life, both held in Sioux Falls. They offered glimpses of the small-town boy who became famous nationally and across the globe.
Still, he was also “Grandpa George” to 10 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Matt McGovern, who is now a Democratic candidate for the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, said George McGovern was his friend, but also was willing to push him to do more with his life.
Matt McGovern said he considered entering law school when he was 28, but fretted he would be 32 when he graduated. Grandpa George offered a quick reply.
“Matthew, you’re going to turn 32 no matter what you do,” he said. “Wouldn’t you rather be 32 with a law degree?”
Matt McGovern said George told stories to make points. He would point out stands of trees along the road and explain they were shelterbelts that prevented erosion on farms. President Franklin Roosevelt was a promoter of that, he said.
Another time, on an early morning drive from Mitchell to the Sioux Falls Airport, George noticed all the lights in the country. When he was a kid, he told Matt, the country was all dark.
FDR had pushed for rural electrification, too, he said.
Many of the stories focused on McGovern’s dry sense of humor, which his family and friends said was a constant trait and something that delighted them.
Scott Heidepriem, the 2010 Democratic candidate for governor, said he had lunch with McGovern a few weeks ago, and told McGovern they should find one of the B-24 “Liberators” that McGovern flew in World War II and place it in front of the McGovern Library on the Dakota Wesleyan University campus.
McGovern looked at him and said, “Let me tell you a story,” Heidepriem said, a sure sign something interesting was on its way.
McGovern patched up one of his planes, which were all dubbed “The Dakota Queen” during his 35 missions over Nazi-occupied territory, and flew it home to the United States. Then, he returned to Mitchell and his family.
In 1946, McGovern and his wife Eleanor were in the fifth row at the State Theater in Mitchell, watching a newsreel as they waited for the main feature to start. The report was on an aircraft graveyard where B-24s were taken to be turned into scrap.
There on the screen was the nose of the Dakota Queen that McGovern had flown home. It was being scrapped. So, McGovern told Heidepriem, he had a good idea where the plane was.
“But she’s not prepared for display,” he said.
Berniece Mayer, who was a longtime volunteer and staffer for McGovern, recalled driving across the state with the senator.
While many politicians like to be driven while they study papers, read or relax, she said McGovern often drove. He drove fast, she said, usually with a cigar.
He would make a stop, shake some hands, and then hit the road. Once, he admitted to her he was out of money, in a time before credit cards were commonly used or ATMs existed. But McGovern stopped at a local bank and was allowed to write a counter check for cash to get back on the road, she said.
Mayer, who visited McGovern in his final days at the Dougherty Hospice House, said a man who stopped by to pay his respects said he knew McGovern from the Sioux Falls Airport, where he handled the senator’s bags. Another card came from a Minerva’s waitress, she said.
“Those were his people,” she said.
Monsignor James Doyle said he and McGovern had been friends for most of their lives.
“We both started in Mitchell,” Doyle said during Friday’s service. “That was 55 years ago, and we’ve both grown ever since.”
He recalled that McGovern said during a speech from the same stage where the funeral was held that he kept looking for old friends, but realized they weren’t there anymore. Doyle said McGovern admitted he didn’t know what was out there after people die, but he had come to the realization that “it will be OK.”
“So rest in peace, old friend,” Doyle said. “The world is better because you passed this way.”