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WENZEL: Today is 20th anniversary of Mickelson plane crash

Korrie Wenzel

Gov. Dennis Daugaard plans to spend a moment of quiet reflection as he remembers the life and legacy of former Gov. George S. Mickelson, who died 20 years ago today in a plane crash while on state business.

Daugaard, in Mitchell Thursday to visit the local Rotary Club, said he doesn't know of any particular events or ceremonies that will mark the anniversary of that shocking day two decades ago. But the current governor said it still will be a sad and emotional day as he remembers Mickelson -- whom he casually knew -- as well other friends who died with the governor that day in a field in eastern Iowa.

"I think it's going to be more of a respectful remembrance of the governor," said Daugaard, who has officially proclaimed today a Day of Remembrance. "I'll ask everyone to stop and take a moment to remember these men who were leaders and sacrificed their lives trying to help South Dakota."

At approximately 4 p.m. on April 19, 1993, Mickelson and seven others were on the way home from a business meeting in Cincinnati when a state-owned Mitsubishi turbo-prop plane crashed after reporting engine trouble. The pilot reported a failed engine and lost pressurization in the cabin shortly before the aircraft plunged from the sky and struck a silo on a farm near Dubuque, Iowa.

The eight dead were Mickelson; Roger Hainje, director of the Sioux Falls Development Foundation; Roland Dolly, state economic development commissioner; Ron Reed, state energy policy commissioner; Dave Birkeland, a Sioux Falls banker; Angus Anson, of Northern States Power Co.; and pilots Ron Becker and Dave Hansen.

Reporters generally recall most urgent breaking news and the responses that follow, although truly shocking events come just a few times even in the longest careers. The plane crash that killed those eight South Dakotans certainly was one of those times, and for many South Dakotans, it still sparks a Kennedy-esque "where were you?" recollection.

Personally, I was huddled around a television in the newsroom here at The Daily Republic, along with every other news staffer. We also waited around an ancient Associated Press photo machine that spewed out actual hard-copy pictures every 10 minutes or so from news events around the world.

Compared to today, that old machine was a great waste -- both in paper and in time. And I remember awaiting the photos from Iowa so we all could see hard evidence for ourselves that the governor's plane really was down.

After all, couldn't this just be some great mistake?

It wasn't, and it was a stunning punch in the gut for all South Dakotans. It's tough to find anyone critical of the work Mickelson did during his short time as governor and, even, his short time on Earth.

Daugaard, too, remembers hearing the news and the aftermath that followed. At that time, he was development director of the Children's Home Foundation in Sioux Falls and had just arrived home after work.

"I think it's vivid on the minds of anyone who is 50 or older," he told The Daily Republic Thursday. "I got a phone call from a board member at the Children's Home. She said, 'Have you seen the news?' "

Daugaard told her that he hadn't.

"She said, 'Turn on the television. The governor has been killed.' "

Of course, the news was everywhere. It didn't take long for it to sink in.

"Oh my gosh. I turned on the television. I was just shocked," Daugaard said.

Although Daugaard was only a casual friend of George Mickelson, he knew First Lady Linda Mickelson well, since she served on the board of directors of the Children's Home. When it came time for Daugaard to launch a fundraising campaign for the Children's Home, the Mickelsons were instrumental in the kickoff and they later held fundraising meetings at the Mickelson home.

Before Daugaard took the job with the Children's Home, he worked with Birkeland in the banking industry in Sioux Falls. When Daugaard told Birkeland he was leaving the bank, Birkeland wished him well and opened his checkbook.

Daugaard recalled that Birkeland said, "Let me be the first donor to your cause."

Another crash victim, Roger Hainje, grew up on a farm just a few miles from Daugaard's childhood home near Garretson and Dell Rapids.

"His brother, Steve, was the best man in my wedding," Daugaard said. "It was really a hard thing to see Roger die."

Daugaard eventually entered politics, serving first in the state Legislature before spending two terms as lieutenant governor under Mike Rounds. Now, Daugaard is leading the state and finds himself in the unique position as top cheerleader for South Dakota industry and business.

With that role comes travel and plenty of it. He recently returned from a whirlwind tour of China, where he and a dozen or so other South Dakotans touted this state's economic potential with officials from that increasingly open-minded nation.

He said most South Dakotans probably don't realize how much time the governor spends in airplanes, connecting points on a map on behalf of a state hungry for more business and economic improvement.

"Most people think the governor is in Pierre, doing whatever one does as the governor: signing letters and talking on the phone," he said.

In an odd coincidence, Daugaard will spend the 20th anniversary of the 1993 plane crash in a plane himself. He and approximately 20 leaders of state industry and business will fly today to an economic conference in Chicago.

"It's kind of the same thing Gov. Mickelson was doing," Daugaard said. "I had scheduled it before I realized it was on the same day, but I think it's probably appropriate. It's what he was doing. He was trying to preserve jobs for South Dakota and that's the aim of this conference. I'm headed back the way he had headed, although not as far east."

Speaking with Daugaard, it's easy to sense he harbors some inner pain associated with the crash, which ended so many promising lives and shocked an entire state.

He said Mickelson's legacy, aside from the tragic way his life ended, should be based partly upon his constant work for economic development, since "(Mickelson) was very active in economic development and of course died in economic development."

"It was," Daugaard said, "quite a price to pay."