Just George: For many in Mitchell, there was a non-political side to McGovernMcGovern always sat at a table in the middle of the restaurant under the chandelier. It was a prominent spot, and he didn’t mind the attention he received.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
Across the nation and around the world, he was known as Sen. George McGovern, liberal icon, presidential candidate and a crusader for peace and feeding hungry people.
To people in his hometown of Mitchell, he was just George.
They saw him walking his dog, shopping at local stores or spending time in local businesses.
McGovern lived in Mitchell as a boy, as a Dakota Wesleyan University student, as a young married man raising a family while he built a career, and then, in the final years of his life as an elder statesman.
It was home, and George McGovern loved it. Over the years, he had homes in suburban Washington, D.C., in Connecticut, Montana, Florida and Rome, Italy. But none drew him back like Mitchell.
“I’ve known George and Eleanor for a very, very long time,” said state Rep. Tona Rozum, R-Mitchell, who knew the McGoverns from the 1950s, when she was friends with their eldest daughter, Ann.
“He’s a nice man,” Rozum said. “I think what he’s done changed a lot of lives in the world. He was a very kind, thoughtful man.”
Jeanne Becker Stusser Lunde, of Reseda, Calif., met McGovern when they were kids living in Mitchell. Lunde, who is 91, said they walked to school together.
“He was the way he’s always been described,” she said. “Shy and quiet.”
They remained friends through school and became close again in the 1940s and 1950s when both were raising families.
Their kids played together and they shared the struggles and joys of young families everywhere; Eleanor McGovern and Lunde even passed maternity clothes back and forth.
The old friends stayed in touch over the years, and in January 2005, McGovern and Eleanor drove across the country in an old Subaru with 155,000 miles on it to visit her in California.
While they were there, the McGoverns’ cat climbed a tree, and while George, who was 82 at the time, tried to get the cat down, his dog, which didn’t like to see him handle the cat, jumped at him. He tried to hold the kitty with one hand while trying to avoid the dog’s teeth at the same time.
It was a comic sight, he admitted during his stay there, and Lunde laughed again Tuesday as she shared the story.
Nikki Fredericksen, who owns Chef Louie’s Steak House & Lounge, said McGovern dined there twice a week when he was in Mitchell. The final time was about a month before he died; walleye was his favorite dish.
McGovern always sat at a table in the middle of the restaurant under the chandelier. It was a prominent spot, and he didn’t mind the attention he received, Fredericksen said.
“People would start to whisper, especially people from out of state, from as far away as California,” she said. “And he loved it. He loved to talk to everyone. And he got lots of pictures taken there and with our staff.
“He was always so nice. All of our waitresses knew him and everybody doted on him,” Fredericksen said. “Everyone was excited to see him. He was always so kind. I enjoyed having him there.”
It’s a story repeated at restaurants, bars and stores across town. George and Eleanor McGovern were regulars at The Depot and the VFW Club, and were often spotted shopping at stores across the community. The words people use to describe them are kind, gentle and friendly.
“He loved to come down and hold court,” said VFW Commander Pat Ziegler. “He loved telling those stories.”
Ziegler said he recalls seeing McGovern walk downtown on a blazing hot day in 2011 so he could stop by and see some friends and share a conversation. The former senator was often dressed in a suit, tie and tennis shoes, he said.
Todd Carlson said he was outside the VFW having a smoke when he saw an elderly man slowly approaching. He opened the door to let him in when the man paused, stuck out his hand and introduced himself.
“He said, ‘I’m George McGovern,’” Carlson said. “I took a look, and said, ‘Yes, you sure are!’”
The veterans said McGovern would discuss politics, his wartime service and numerous other topics as he enjoyed a glass of vodka or a beer. Sometimes he would buy a round for the house, and he was always good for a story or two.
But he didn’t come home to Mitchell to retire and reflect, even though he was in his 80s when he returned. McGovern wrote, made speeches and offered counsel and advice until the final days of his life. He was famous for getting by on a few hours of sleep a night.
Don Simmons, the dean of the College of Public Service, Leadership and Graduate Studies at Dakota Wesleyan University, and executive director of the McGovern Center for Leadership and Public Service, worked with McGovern and became friends with him.
Simmons said he will always remember McGovern as a kind, thoughtful man who worked long hours.
McGovern handwrote his speeches, op-eds and books in longhand on legal pads, and Simmons said there were many late nights he saw McGovern at work at his home located across the street from the McGovern Library.
“I would go over there and have a cup of coffee or something with him, and when I would leave, he would be back to work writing at his desk,” he said.
McGovern was known for his serious, studious nature, and for his drive to feed people, promote social justice and end needless wars. But he also had a sense of humor that was readily on display.
Steve Clark, a Mitchell advertising executive, shared a story about McGovern’s deadpan sense of humor.
McGovern had come to Clark’s dad’s station and had gone unrecognized by the secretary. The secretary asked McGovern what company he was with, and McGovern said “the United States Senate,” which still didn’t spark a light of recognition with the secretary.
“George said, ‘After all the advertising I’ve done, I still found someone who didn’t know who I was!’ ”
Clark said his father was a Republican, but he and McGovern had a mutual respect.
McGovern’s parents were also Republicans, and he was raised as one himself before moving to the left and becoming a Democrat in the 1950s.
He wrote seven guest columns in 1952 for The Daily Republic on the histories of the two parties.
The columns promoted the candidacy of Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson, a liberal Democrat who was the party’s presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956.
They also revealed McGovern’s evolving political beliefs. After writing those columns, he maintained a connection to his hometown paper, and almost always took or returned calls from The Daily Republic when asked for an interview or a comment.
Bryan Brickman, who lives near the house where McGovern resided when he was in Mitchell, often saw him walk his big Newfoundland dog around the DWU campus.
“Just a very pleasant individual,” Brickman said. “Neighborhood kids would gather around and pet the dog. He seemed to get a lot of joy out of that. He was a very nice man.”