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WOSTER: Memories of Mickelson

Yesterday I pulled up a photograph from 24 years ago, showing Gov. George Mickelson and me standing near a table in the lobby behind the Senate chamber, obviously listening to someone who was off-camera.

I don't remember the date, but it was a Friday, early afternoon, I'm thinking, because the Legislature was still in session. Mickelson had climbed the stairs to third floor to see who was around and what was happening. He did that sometimes, just to keep in contact with folks. He'd talk to legislators, lobbyists, state employees, high school classes and anyone else he encountered, and his voice would boom through the halls. He was an energetic, upbeat and optimistic guy.

The afternoon the photo was taken, Mickelson ran smack into a free-wheeling discussion of likely candidates for various South Dakota offices in the election scheduled the next year. He joined the conversation with gusto. Twenty or 25 minutes later, he had to tear himself away to get to a scheduled meeting out of the Capitol. A few weeks later, the governor died in the crash of a state airplane. Today is the anniversary of that 1993 plane crash.

One of the things I always liked about Mickelson was his enthusiasm, his eagerness to wade into a conversation on just about any topic, and the way he relished a good give-and-take. I have a couple of other faded, blurry photos of the two of us. One is an Earth Day celebration at a park in Pierre during which Mickelson joined me and a couple of other guys to sing "This Land is Your Land.'' The other is from the Brown County Fairgrounds, when the band I played with backed a show by my brother Jim, who invited the governor on stage to sing a number.

I mean no disrespect when I suggest that George Mickelson maybe didn't have the greatest singing voice you ever heard. But, gosh, was he willing to sing when given the opportunity. He charged — "ramming speed'' was a catch phrase his staffers sometimes used — into a song the same way he charged into an impromptu political discussion, which was just the way he charged into policy discussions and budget talks and any other problems or opportunities that caught his attention.

Not long after he and Linda moved across the street from us in 1987, our younger son, Andy, headed out to sell Cub Scout popcorn. Nancy and I were just beginning to wonder why he hadn't returned home when the phone rang. It was Andy, calling to say "George'' told him he'd better let us know where he was. He was calling from George's car as they headed to a station to pick up a boat battery. He had sold some popcorn to the big guy, who then invited him to tag along on a quick errand. Andy has never forgotten that moment, or his friend George.

When the airplane crashed in an Iowa farm yard, all of South Dakota went into mourning. I still worked for the newspaper, so I spent my days reporting and writing and my night reflecting on the random uncertainty of life. The evening before the memorial service in the Capitol rotunda, I walked over to the House chamber and sat in the press box late into the night, recalling simple, silly, insignificant moments of sitting there while Mickelson presided at the speaker's podium.

A news story in the week following the crash quoted an early Mickelson speech: "The people of South Dakota are my friends and neighbors.'' We were all friends and neighbors after the crash, not only of the governor but also of the seven other decent South Dakotans who died that day. They were returning from Cincinnati after an economic development trip. News stories at the time too often included the phrase, "Mickelson and seven others.''

The others were state pilots Ron Becker and David Hansen, state officials Roland Dolly and Ron Reed, and Sioux Falls corporate officials Roger Hainje, David Birkeland and Angus Anson. Each of those men, to someone among us, was the most important person on the airplane. All of them deserve to be remembered by name.