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WOSTER: Sears served state with dedication -- and a twinkle in his eye

Terry Woster

Until I read John Sears' obituary the other day, I didn't realize he and I were the same age. He seemed more mature back when he was serving in the South Dakota Legislature.

Born in 1944, he served 12 years in the House of Representatives. His service spanned a period from the middle of the 1980s through the middle of the 1990s, a fascinating time for legislative actions and political activity.

Sears began his elected service just as the late Republican Gov. Bill Janklow was nearing the end of his second term as chief executive. Sears ended his years in the House with Janklow back in office for a third term.

In a dozen years as a legislator, Sears served while four governors held office -- the late Republican George Mickelson and Republican Walt Miller sandwiched between the Janklow second and third terms.

Sears was an easy guy to like. Big and a little brassy, he had a broad face and a thick head of dark hair streaked with a bit of gray.

He spent a few years as a majority whip -- a mid-level leadership position in a chamber -- and two years as chair of the Legislative Research Council's Executive Committee.

He could be serious about the process, but he seldom took himself too seriously, and he had a knack of easing tension in committees and, I'm told by those who were inside, in some of the most contentious of caucuses.

He became legislative pals with Dave Munson, a Republican lawmaker from Sioux Falls who later served as mayor of that city. One afternoon while the House milled around waiting for a group of negotiators to put the finishing touches on one compromise or another, I talked with Munson and Sears about their role in the process.

"Dave and I,'' Sears said with a sparkle in his eyes, "We're the straws who stir the drink in this Legislature,'' meaning they made things happen.

Each of the men thought it was hugely funny. I've used that line often over the years.

Another time, I was sitting next to Sears during a late-session conference committee. That's a group of six lawmakers who try to find agreement between different versions of a bill. As I recall, at issue was a bill considered absolutely necessary to pass in some form before the Legislature could adjourn.

After several failed amendments, a committee member proposed a whole new concept, one that would essentially require the Legislature to start over on the bill.

"Well, it's a little late for that kind of input,'' Sears said in a stage whisper. It cracked up those who were within earshot, and it caused everyone else in the area to look curiously at the group of giggling spectators around Sears.

As I said, he was an easy guy to like. I suppose he was a pretty typical citizen-legislator. He didn't become majority leader or speaker or move to the Senate or run for governor or Congress. He just came to Pierre after every election for a dozen years and served. He was a wonderfully witty character, though, and he enlivened the Capitol while he was there.

As I reflected on some moments in my time of watching Sears in the House, it occurred to me that he represents a whole group of lawmakers who made my 40 years as a legislative reporter enjoyable.

The South Dakota Legislature has its issues, its bills, its proposed constitutional amendments, its successes and its failures, and I always found those things to be well worth reporting on and writing about. But the Legislature isn't bills and resolutions, committee rooms and chambers, caucuses and conference committees.

The Legislature is people, the men and women who step forward and ask their fellow citizens to send them to Pierre to represent them. It takes a certain audacity to file nominating petitions for the House or Senate, and most of the men and women I watched in the Legislature for four decades took seriously the responsibility their fellow South Dakotans gave them in return for those acts of audacity.

Sears was one of those audacious people.