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WOSTER: LeBrun had no 'clear majority,' but a clear legacy

Terry Woster1 / 2
Gene LeBrun2 / 2

Before today is over, in a ceremony at Cedar Shore near Oacoma, a mild-mannered lawyer from Rapid City will take his place in the South Dakota Hall of Fame.

I guarantee Gene Lebrun will be honored by his selection to the hall. I assure you, the hall is honored by his presence. Gene Lebrun is a remarkable and decent South Dakotan. He's also the only Democrat in decades to have been speaker of the South Dakota House of Representatives. He achieved that distinction without serving a lot of time in grade, the way speakers and other legislative leaders used to do in the days before term limits accelerated everything about the legislative process (except perhaps the pace at which the House sometimes deliberates the bills and resolutions).

I met Gene when he won election to the House. A sharp-faced man of slender build, he had a shock of dark hair that gave him a Kennedy-esque appearance. As a Democrat running in Rapid City in 1970, he was an underdog, or should have been but for his ability to work, his sensible approach to contentious issues -- and, OK, a growing sentiment among South Dakota voters at both ends of the state that it was time to change some things.

The same year Lebrun won his first term in the House, a Sioux Falls lawyer named Larry Piersol won his first term in the House. The two lawyers from opposite sides of South Dakota will forever be linked in my memories of the 1970s. Maybe that's because I was a young wire service reporter at the time, and perhaps it's because some pretty amazing things happened about the time those guys showed up to serve.

Lebrun and Piersol didn't serve very long -- two terms apiece. They were members of the minority party during their first term, but in the election of 1972, Democrats managed to split the House with Republicans. Each side won 35 seats. Because Dick Kneip, a Democrat, was governor at the time, the Democrats had the power to organize the House. That means they appointed committees, decided the order of the daily process and chose the speaker. Lebrun, only in his second term, became speaker. Piersol became majority leader.

Lebrun found great joy in reminding me and Terry Devine, the other wire service reporter in Pierre at the time, of an election-night story that proclaimed the Democrats were on their way to a clear majority in the House. Well, if you've ever covered an election as a reporter, you know that sometimes the deadlines dictate that you send the editors a story that obviously isn't the final word on the subject. The deal is, that story gets printed in one edition of a newspaper and is replaced later in the evening by another story with more results.

Devine had some results when the first deadline arrived, and Democrats were leading by a few seats, so he wrote what he wrote. When later returns evened things up, Devine changed his story to match. That wasn't in time to prevent at least one or two papers from going to press with "Democrats are on their way to a clear majority." Lebrun used to call him "Clear Majority Devine."

Anyway, those two folks became House leaders for two years. They were instrumental, with Senate leaders such as future Gov. Harvey Wollman, in opening the committee process, pressing for government reorganization and nurturing the fledgling State Investment Office. I used to call Lebrun "Clean Gene" because of his involvement with openness in the Legislature.

He had his moment in the House of Representatives and then he went home to build a law career and resume a real life. Sometimes, it seems to me, the good ones don't stay around long enough. Lebrun was one of those. In my experience, he was always courteous, always prepared and always willing to entertain others' opinions. He didn't change his mind easily, but he listened, and he heard.

The Hall of Fame inducted Piersol into its ranks in 2010. It's fitting that Gene Lebrun join him. For me, there has been a piece missing up to now.