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Brokaw hits Pickstown

Tom Brokaw gives the keynote speech Friday afternoon in Pickstown during the dedication ceremony for the town’s new museum. The museum documents the town’s birth as a planned city for the construction of the Fort Randall Dam on the Missouri River. (Sean Ryan/Republic) 1 / 2
Tom Brokaw talks with Art Trautman before the dedication ceremony for the new museum in Pickstown Friday afternoon. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)2 / 2

PICKSTOWN -- In a small town on the bluffs above the Missouri River, Tom Brokaw found what he now describes as the perfect place to grow up.

Brokaw, a journalist best known for being the anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News from 1982 to 2004, lived in Pickstown for a time with his parents and siblings in the late 1940s and early 1950s. On Friday, Brokaw, 74, returned to Pickstown to attend the dedication of a new museum built to preserve and share the history of the town and its people, who came from across the U.S. in the late 1940s and early 1950s to build the Fort Randall Dam, one of six built along the Missouri River.

"I've had a great life. I've seen a lot of things. But I feel so rooted in my memories here," Brokaw said in an interview Friday with The Daily Republic.

Brokaw's father worked as a construction foreman for the Army Corps of Engineers, which built the Fort Randall Dam, and his family was one of many in Pickstown who came for the jobs created as a result of the project. The town quickly became a vibrant and diverse place to grow up during construction of the dam, with people streaming in from all across the country, Brokaw said.

"Over the years, I've thought back, what a perfect place to grow up," Brokaw said. "Everything was brand new. We had everything we needed."

Brokaw praised the construction of the Fort Randall Dam in a speech at Friday's event, which was attended by about 500 people. As the event's keynote speaker, Brokaw described the Fort Randall Dam project as a big idea fulfilled by ordinary people.

"They didn't sit around and whine, and talk about their differences," he said. "They were thrilled for the opportunity that they had."

Many of the workers at the Fort Randall Dam endured the hardships of both the Great Depression and World War II, but were suddenly making more money than they ever had before, and many started buying new cars and saving to put their children through college, Brokaw said.

"It was the essence of the American dream," he said.

Thousands of people lived in Pickstown during construction of the dam, but the town now has a population of less than 200 people.

Brokaw said the experiences of growing up in Pickstown, among such diverse people, helped propel him to a successful career in journalism.

"I was well served by the experience that I had here because I experienced other cultures and I learned what life was like," he said.

Brokaw, is the author of "The Greatest Generation," a term he uses to describe those people who endured the Great Depression and World War II.

"Those of us who were youngsters when we moved here became, in my judgment, the luckiest generation," he said.

He was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer affecting blood cells in the bone marrow, earlier this year.

South Dakota Lt. Gov. Matt Michels also spoke at the event. Michels said it's valuable to preserve the history of the area.

"We're all products of our history," Michels said. "We cannot go forward without understanding where we've been.

Art Trautman, a 1953 graduate of Pickstown High School and co-chairman of the committee that spearheaded the museum project, said the museum has taken three years to complete. It features more than 2,000 items related to Pickstown's history, including about 1,500 old photos.

"It was a lot of work," Trautman said. "We loved every minute of it."

The committee collected at least $37,000 in donations to fund the project, of which about $28,000 has already been spent, Trautman said. Most of the money that remains will be used for maintenance and to make improvements to the museum.

As people walked through the museum around him on Friday, Trautman said it was extremely gratifying to see what had become of the committee's three years of work on the project.

"I'm elated," he said. "It brings me to tears. I'm just overwhelmed."