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McGovern notebook: Hart surprises, Daschle gets laughs, Cardinal loyalty noted

Former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart speaks during funeral services for former Democratic U.S. Senator and three-time presidential candidate George McGovern at the Washington Pavilion of Arts and Sciences in Sioux Falls on Friday. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, Pool)

There was a plethora of big-name politicians at the Thursday prayer service and Friday funeral for George McGovern.

Several prominent Democrats were in the audience Thursday: Vice President Joe Biden; Sen. Tim Johnson, who spoke of his friendship with and deep respect for McGovern; and former Sen. Tom Daschle, who sat by Biden but did not speak Thursday. Instead, he would offer reflections Friday. Former Sen. James Abourezk was also there. Former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin helped preside at the event with former legislator Scott Heidepriem, the 2010 Democratic candidate for governor.

One man who came in as the Thursday event was starting and stood quietly through the entire service, first in the balcony and then on the main floor, drew little attention.

It was Gary Hart, who served as McGovern's campaign manager in 1972 and then served two terms in the Senate from Colorado and ran for president in 1984 and 1988. Looking relatively unchanged from his days in the national spotlight, other than his dark hair now being gray/white, Hart departed as the service ended.

He reappeared Friday, speaking at the memorial service, even though he wasn't on the program, and introducing himself as "Gary Hart of Colorado."

Hart said McGovern "was there" for America, standing up for the principles he believed in throughout his career.

His voice husky, either with age or emotion or perhaps both, Hart said McGovern was a proud liberal who fought dangerous bomber missions, spoke out for the causes he believed in, and continues to inspire people.

"George McGovern's voice is not gone, it is simply waiting new voices of conscience to have the courage of their conviction," he said, departing to loud applause.

Daschle and the donkey

Daschle said McGovern preached the gospel better than anyone he knew, and did so through his deeds, actions and words.

He lived up to his faith with his political actions, Daschle said, and sent a message to others with his courage and stands.

He said McGovern would have earned high praise.

"George's life wasn't an easy one," Daschle said. "He fought many battles other than the ones in the airplane."

He said McGovern was publicly attacked and felt private torment, but his "incredible sense of humor" and ability to soldier on kept him going. Daschle said it's comforting that McGovern died peacefully, surrounded by family and friends.

"Throughout his life, he had a love for Mitchell," Daschle said, noting that the McGovern Library on the Dakota Wesleyan University campus is a symbol of his years in the community. But still, McGovern wanted to do more, and resigned from DWU in 1953 to take over the state Democratic Party.

"His friends agreed there was only one reason for that decision: He was out of his mind," Daschle said.

Daschle also told a story from McGovern's autobiography "Grassroots" that had the audience laughing loudly.

McGovern, working in the 1950s as the leader of the state Democratic Party, was alone at the South Dakota State Fair with no literature to hand out, no coffee to serve and no elected officials to introduce people to when they stopped by, while the Republicans had all that plus a real live elephant.

A Democrat stopped by and offered McGovern the use of his donkey. McGovern drove 14 miles to pick the animal up and delivered him back to the fair in his old Chevrolet.

The donkey kicked out a window, relieved itself on a nun and bit a child.

"I've never trusted donkeys since, George wrote,'" Daschle said. "They deserve to be called asses."

Daschle said he realized the value of that statement later when he served as the leader of Senate Democrats.

More McGovern politicians

Two politicians named McGovern spoke on Thursday and Friday to honor McGovern.

One was Matt McGovern, the late senator's grandson who dropped his last name of Rowen to work and run under a name far better known to South Dakotans. He is running this year for a seat on the Public Utilities Commission. The other was Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., who is not related to George McGovern.

Jim McGovern said George was his "inspiration" and "most treasured friend."

"It was so comforting to have him around," the Massachusetts congressman said.

"Our country missed a tremendous opportunity in 1972," he said.

But he said George McGovern's enduring legacy was feeding people in need, standing up for those who needed a champion, and being a hero to young people who admired him 40 years ago and grew to become leaders and politicians who believed as he did.

Jim McGovern said as a seventh-grader, he did all he could for George McGovern -- and he noted dryly that his state was the sole one to support McGovern in the 1972 election. He later worked as an intern in McGovern's Senate office.

He said people often tell him how much they admired his father, and are shocked when he tells them his dad ran a liquor store in Worcester, Mass.

Cardinals fan

Matt McGovern's father, James Rowen, also spoke during the Friday service. He is married to George McGovern's daughter Susan and has also been active politically, serving as a top aide to the mayor of Milwaukee and later running for the post himself. He lost, as did his son Sam McGovern-Rowen, who unsuccessfully ran for alderman in that Wisconsin city.

"I was his baseball pal," Rowen said, detailing McGovern's lifelong love of the St. Louis Cardinals.

He said George McGovern's father, the Rev. Joseph McGovern, kept his brief career as a player on a minor league team in Des Moines, Iowa, a secret until he revealed a powerful and accurate throwing arm. George McGovern was already a Cardinals fan, but learning his dad had played for a bush league team with ties to the Cards made him proud.

"Not everyone in Mitchell had a dad who played professional baseball," McGovern told Rowen when asked his feelings about his father's sporting life.

George McGovern once obtained some tickets for a spring training game, and despite a furious drive to get to the game on time, they had a marvelous time, sitting in the sun to enjoy the contest, which St. Louis won.

Afterward, they were invited to meet Tony La Russa, the manager of the team, and they had a conversation. On the way home, McGovern kept repeating, "Can you believe it? We got to meet Tony La Russa."

It was what most people might say if they met a president or a pope, Rowen said, except McGovern had already met those people. Meeting a Cardinals manager truly excited him.

When McGovern was comatose in hospice in his final days, Rowen said he and his son Matt would tell him of the Cardinals' playoff games and how well they were doing. He said the news seemed to perk him up.

It was just too bad the Cardinals lost out to the San Francisco Giants in the National League Championship Series, Rowen said. "The Cards didn't rally," he said. "And neither did George."

But St. Louis won the World Series in 2011, in the final season McGovern witnessed to the end. When it was over, LaRussa, who had become a phone friend of McGovern, retired as manager.