LAWRENCE: Kneip should be rememberedDick Kneip, the most successful Democratic governor in state history, isn’t mentioned much, or even recalled that often, today.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
Dick Kneip isn’t mentioned much, or even recalled that often, today.
Kneip, the most successful Democratic governor in state history, has been dead for more than a quarter of a century. He last won an election nearly 40 years ago.
But Kneip (pronounced Ka-nipe), who would have turned 80 on Monday, is worth remembering. He was a dominant figure in South Dakota in the 1970s, and he has remained a Democratic icon in the state, although not of the stature of George McGovern or Tom Daschle.
Maybe that should change. The Democrats certainly would benefit from replicating his winning ways, as well as his engaging personal style.
I saw Kneip in person once, when he stopped by Estelline High School in the early 1970s. He stuck his head in the door, said hello to our class, and moved on.
We were all excited to see the governor. He had an unmistakable charisma.
I later learned he made the rounds in Estelline that day, shaking hands and talking with people. My dad and some other farmers offered to buy the governor a beer, and he said he’d love to take them up on it, but he needed to work the grocery stores.
Can’t have the ladies smelling beer on my breath when I’m asking them for their vote, Kneip told the guys.
A lot of people who recall those times speak glowingly of the political and personal skills of Kneip, a lean, dark-haired, bulb-nosed milk implement salesman.
He was also a three-term legislator from Salem before he knocked Frank Farrar out of office in 1970 and swept to two more wins.
Kneip was more than just a politician. He and his wife Nancy had eight sons.
Perhaps the most unlikely part of his career came on Nov. 19, 1977, when he appeared on “Saturday Night Live.”
The late-night comedy show was at its wild peak then, and as a stunt, it invited viewers to submit applications. More than 150,000 people tried, but Kneip’s sons’ letter made him one of six people chosen to try out for a shot to co-host the Christmas show.
Kneip appeared in skits with host Buck Henry, on the same show as Bill Murray, John Belushi, Gilda Radner and other early “SNL” stars. I remember watching it, amazed at what came across the screen.
Looking back, it’s obvious that people liked and admired Kneip, a self-effacing, charming man. Bill Janklow told me several times how much he respected Kneip, despite their different party affiliations, and said he hunted with Kneip’s sons in the following decades.
Sadly, his family, friends and admirers weren’t able to spend a lot of time with Dick Kneip in the years after he came home from an ambassadorship in Singapore in 1981, which he’d been appointed to by President Jimmy Carter in 1978.
Kneip tried for a comeback in 1986 but lost to Lars Herseth — Stephanie’s dad — in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. Herseth then lost in a close race against Republican George S. Mickelson.
It was the last time the South Dakota Democrats put up a good fight for the governor’s office, at least so far. Only five Democrats have served as governor, and only four won elections. A Democrat has been elected South Dakota’s governor seven times — and three of those wins were by Kneip.
It’s worth noting that from 1970 to 1998, Kneip and Janklow combined to win seven of the nine governor’s races. A social to honor the two men, and an attempt to foster a sense of bipartisanship, was held in Sioux Falls last week.
It’s nice to see something that honors Kneip, as well as Janklow, who died a year ago this month.
Kneip was still a relatively young man when he tried for a comeback, but he was already very ill with the cancer that killed him in 1987. He was a man in a hurry, and he was also a man of considerable passions who enjoyed a drink or two, and battled an addiction to smoking.
He died far too soon, ending a fascinating life. The South Dakota Democratic Party is still looking for someone to follow in his footsteps.