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Sebert: Retired businessman believes in public service

Lou Sebert is a straight talker.

In discussions about life, business and politics, the 70-year-old candidate for mayor is prone to offering blunt philosophical statements that cast issues in black and white, right and wrong, good and evil.

On decision-making: "You never run your life off of somebody else's thinking. You listen, you pay attention, and you have to do what you think is right after all the inputs."

On the media: "Too many times they talk about the bad things & If I tip my car over, it'd be the headlines of the paper. And if I don't tip my car over, it never makes the paper."

On lawmaking: "The number one accomplishment is the bills that you defeat. You never hear about those. But if every bill passed that went through the Legislature, we'd be in & a mess."

On his qualifications: "I don't think that Lou Sebert would have been president of all these organizations if he didn't have an opinion at the time or didn't know a little a bit what he's talking about."

On being a leader: "Leadership is having somebody do something for you, getting the job done and having those people still respect you - not like you, respect you."

Sebert's philosophies are built on his rural roots, a long and successful business career, eight years in the state Legislature and the experience of raising six children. He is challenging Rube Adam and Mayor Alice Claggett in the April 11 city election.

Sebert was born in 1935 in the tiny community of Java in northcentral South Dakota. He grew up on his family's farm surrounded by eight siblings in a house with sod walls, and he helped milk the family's cows by hand. He went to school in nearby Bowdle.

Sebert may have been a farmer had it not been for his allergies to grain dust and cattle, which forced him to seek a different vocation. He joined the U.S. Army after high school and served two years, 1955-1957, including a 16-month assignment in England.

Following his Army service, Sebert worked briefly in custom combining in Oklahoma. He then completed a one-year accounting program at the Aberdeen School of Commerce.

Next, Sebert worked for a John Deere implement in Aberdeen. He moved on to an implement at Selby and then got his first real taste of management while running an implement in McLaughlin.

"Managing the John Deere store at McLaughlin put a whole new light in my life as to managing people, rather than knowing your neighbors and things like this," he said. "You start managing people, and that's a whole new ballgame."

Sebert's next move was to Mitchell, where he enrolled at Dakota Wesleyan University in the late '60s to study business. He also took classes, he said, "like photography, and marriage and family, that were expensive and I didn't get anything out of."

"With six kids, you don't need an educated person telling you what to do, because you've already done it," he explained.

During that time, Sebert also worked as a controller and assistant manager at Dakota Manufacturing. In 1972, he became manager of Dakota Pump.

Sebert remained at Dakota Pump for about 30 years and gradually accumulated all the ownership shares. He helped grow the manufacturing business into an international seller of water and wastewater pump systems, and he was inducted into the business and trade category of the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 1996.

In 2001, Sebert sold the business to his children and retired. He remained a state representative, but his House career is ending this year because of term limits.

Sebert and his wife, Carol, have 13 grandchildren. They are members of the Holy Spirit Catholic Church.

The brusque side of Sebert's personality is countered by a sentimental side. He speaks glowingly of his children and grandchildren and is an avid collector of farm-related antiques.

The shed across the street from Sebert's home at Lake Mitchell is filled with stuff he refers to fondly as "junk." He is restoring a 1963 Ford tractor, and his collection of old tractor seats is hung on a wall.

Stacked on the shelves, in the rafters and on the floor of the shed are various other wonders, including a brick of sod from an old farmhouse, a cream separator, old metal chains that helped power ancient machinery, an antique vice and drill press, and a hand-pumped vacuum cleaner.

Another important part of Sebert's life is his devotion to an extensive variety of national, state and local organizations. Through the years he has presided over boards for Avera Queen of Peace Hospital, the United Way, the Jaycees, the Mitchell Area Development Corporation, the Chamber of Commerce and Junior Achievement. His memberships and offices with other groups are too numerous to list.

The reason Sebert has sought leadership roles and elected positions, he said, is because he believes in public service.

"Service to humanity is the best work of life," he said. "If you can do something for somebody else, it's a lot better than doing it for yourself, and you thank God that he gave you those abilities."