LAWRENCE: Hard to believe that McGovern is goneHe offered me a glimpse at a thick sheaf of papers. He was writing a memoir, he said, and it would tell old and new stories of his life.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
George McGovern had a request, and it wasn’t the type I often get.
McGovern was approaching his 89th birthday last year and had decided he wanted to celebrate it by driving in a race car. So he called me in the summer of 2011 and wanted to know if I could line one up for him.
Although I had interviewed McGovern countless times since 1980, especially since I came to The Daily Republic in 2010, it wasn’t as if we were pals. And I am not exactly a racing fan.
But this was George McGovern, an honest-to-God legend, a part-time Mitchell resident and a nice, friendly man who had given me a few minutes or more for interviews many, many times. So I agreed to check on it.
Luckily for me, the first person I asked, Doug Backlund, knew of people who owned and raced cars.
In a few days, Lane Brenden, of Mitchell, agreed to teach McGovern how to drive his Wing 360 sprint car and allow him to take it for a spin on Huset’s Speedway.
McGovern called me on July 22, three days after his birthday, and asked for a ride to check on the car. I picked him up at his home across from the Dakota Wesleyan University campus, and we drove over to the storage unit where Brenden kept the car.
After a brief interview, in which McGovern was in a witty, playful mood, we checked on the car. Brenden and I had to help wedge him into the tiny space; I have a recurring image of trying to twist one of McGovern’s legs into place as he slid into the seat. The old bomber pilot seemed not to mind, and we finally got him in there.
After taking some photos and listening as he took instructions, McGovern asked me to drop him off at a friend’s house. He had been invited to dinner and had brought a bottle of wine along with him. He couldn’t recall the address, however, but we finally tracked it down, and off he went into the house, a smile on his face.
The previous year, McGovern jumped 18,000 feet from a perfectly good airplane as part of a tandem parachute adventure to mark his 88th birthday. I interviewed him before and after he jumped, but I wasn’t tasked with lining up the plane.
Covering the prayer service and funeral for McGovern in Sioux Falls Oct. 25-26 were some of the final times I will cover the legendary liberal. Viewing his body in the open casket before the prayer service caused other memories of the man to come to my mind.
I am 54, and I do not recall a time in my life when I didn’t know who George McGovern was. My dad’s Norwegian Lutheran family was mostly Republicans, and included Rep. Harold Lovre, the man McGovern defeated in 1956 in his first bid for Congress.
I asked McGovern about Lovre a few years ago, and he spoke highly of his one-time rival, and I don’t think he did so because of my family ties. Lovre, who adored my grandmother and her cooking, died in 1972; my brother recalls him in our home, but I don’t.
My mother’s Irish/Danish Catholic family was mostly Democrats, and most supported McGovern. A lot of the Republicans in our clan did so, too, over the years.
The first time I saw him speak was in the late 1970s, when he gave a lecture on world hunger at South Dakota State University, where I was a student at the time. I had always heard what a gifted speaker he was, so I was surprised by his flat tone and less-than-thrilling delivery.
But the words and ideas made great sense. McGovern was always more of a workhorse than a show horse.
Our paths crossed numerous times before I landed at The Daily Republic in 2010 and soon was speaking to McGovern on a regular basis. We asked his opinion on the Kennedy family and his relationship with them, his thoughts on President Obama, the national and state political scene and several other topics.
He always took or returned calls. McGovern found time to reflect and provide quotes for the story I was writing, and it wasn’t because I was a favorite of his. It was more about The Daily Republic.
“I can’t turn down my favorite newspaper,” he told me several times.
Seeing him at his library on Dec. 2 after he tripped and struck his head on a sidewalk was a low moment.
I can still see that great, chiseled head, coated in blood, as he huddled in a quilt while emergency responders tended to him. That’s an image I would just as soon lose from my memory.
He bounced back, however. I talked with him and took some photos at the State Fair on Sept. 1. I was covering the Public Utilities Commission debate, and he was there to show support for his grandson, PUC candidate Matt McGovern.
He looked really good, had on a sharp-looking shirt, and asked for the microphone at the end of the debate. McGovern then delivered an impromptu speech and shook hands with anyone that came near. That memory I like a lot.
When he saw me, he said kind words about the series I wrote for The Daily Republic about the 40th anniversary of the 1972 campaign. McGovern said people were saying good things about it, and I thanked him.
One reason the series was successful, in my view, was that he gave me interviews to discuss what happened on the trail 40 years ago. It wasn’t always a pleasant topic, but he was blunt and honest, and willing to offer insights and reflections.
This summer, as he worked the fair crowd, I stood back and talked with another bystander. We agreed that the old campaigner was in his natural setting. It was the last time I ever saw him.
In recent months, when I saw him in Mitchell, or talked to him on the phone, he seemed frail. Still, hearing he had been placed in hospice care, and was near death, was a jolt.
Somehow, it seemed George McGovern would always be out there.
I ran into him on the DWU campus last fall, and he offered me a glimpse at a thick sheaf of papers. He was writing a memoir, he said, and it would tell old and new stories of his life.
I hope he finished it, and I look forward to reading it. It will almost be like having one more conversation with George McGovern, and that was always a privilege.