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ANALYSIS: Jim Abdnor: South Dakota's model of public service and a life well lived

This home, though extensively remodeled over the years, is the birthplace of Jim Abdnor. He grew up in Kennebec and used the home as his base during his years in the U.S. Senate. (Noel Hamiel/For The Daily Republic)1 / 2
This plaque in front of his home in Kennebec marks the birthplace of former U.S. Sen. Jim Abdnor, who died Wednesday. (Noel Hamiel/For The Daily Republic)2 / 2

KENNEBEC -- Jim Abdnor's family home still sits on a corner lot a few blocks east of Main Street in Kennebec, population 240, where the only building stretching skyward is the grain elevator near the railroad tracks.

It is a modest, story-and-a-half bungalow that could use a coat of paint. In front, at ground level, lies a small plaque that identifies the site as the home of Sam and Mary Abdnor, homesteader and merchant, and birthplace of Jim, and his older siblings, Joseph and Marina.

Kennebec represents, as well as any place, our heritage, our economy, and, unless some unforeseen force presents itself, the future of most towns in rural South Dakota.

Today most of the growth occurs at the state's east and west extremes -- the Black Hills and the I-29 corridor. But in the 1920s and '30s, when Jim Abdnor was growing up, Kennebec was a thriving county seat in central South Dakota, in the heart of wheat and cattle country. It enjoyed the full array of retail, including grocery stores, a movie theater, Abdnor's general merchandise, and two -- count 'em, two -- pool halls.

He learned his conservative values from his parents, and his father in particular conveyed the prudence of fiscal responsibility. For most of his life, Abdnor lived here, going to school, working the farm. Even when he was elected to Congress in 1972, he continued to come back and stay at the home, a practice which continued until a few years ago.

At his funeral Saturday in Pierre, he will be eulogized as a good and honest man who became a politician, in the best sense of the word. He is remembered as a humble man of his word, as a proponent of small government and fiscal restraint, and who defined as well as anyone could, the voice of the "common man." Jim Abdnor was as common and down home as any politician who ever knocked on a door in South Dakota. Those who thought that this dirt farmer from Lyman County, this "country bumpkin," was politically naïve later paid the painful price at the ballot box.

His opponents -- and I would not use the word "enemy" or even "adversary," because Jim did not engender that reaction from others -- often underestimated him because of his unpretentious manner and his limited public speaking ability. Oddly, the mild speech impediment that characterized his public and private conversations seemed to add to his image as "one of us."

If classroom history and government teachers are seeking an example of one who sought public service for all the right reasons, former teacher Jim Abdnor would do quite nicely.

From an early age, he saw that the traits of integrity and hard work would ultimately serve the person seeking office, as well as his constituents, better than soaring oratory, slick campaign ads, and an appetite for an ever larger public stage. But his public service didn't begin and end with politics. His volunteerism in Kennebec and beyond was legendary. Hundreds of Lyman County kids played baseball for Coach Jim Abdnor -- and he never forgot their names.

Much has been written about Abdnor's Senate victory over George McGovern in 1980. And, in turn, of Abdnor's defeat by Tom Daschle in 1986, and then, also in turn, of Daschle's defeat by Abdnor protégé John Thune in 2004. Fascinating races all, with a number of lessons to be learned from each of them. One might be that no matter how talented a politician is, he is vulnerable if challenged by an equally talented candidate. Longevity isn't promised to any politician, nor should it be.

Hanging on the wall of the living room in Abdnor's Kennebec home is a framed newspaper front page declaring Abdnor the victor in the 1980 U.S. Senate race. McGovern is quoted as vowing to start a $10 million national common-sense organization to combat extremist groups, and contending that the nation needed a powerful antidote to combat the "poison of extremism."

That point of view has a familiar ring today -- more than 30 years later -- as liberals train their guns on tea party candidates and other "extremists" and conservative PACs take aim at liberal candidates and causes. Interestingly, voters 30 years ago thought of Abdnor as the "common-sense" candidate.

Today, the world is far different than it was in 1980. In Washington, D.C., the political atmosphere is toxic. Compromise is rare. It has been said that the politicians just need "to do their job." However, many are doing just that by sticking to principles dear to them. Fiscal conservatives today, similar to Abdnor in the 1980s, don't want to budge on budget matters because they know the country is headed the way of Greece.

If Jim Abdnor were running today, his smaller government and fiscal restraint platform would resonate with many South Dakotans. His lasting legacy, though, is the extraordinary political model that he set for honesty, modesty, hard work, and commitment to the people of South Dakota.

Noel Hamiel, author of this article, is a retired publisher of The Daily Republic. He recently was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Association Hall of Fame.