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Badger Clark memory lives on in South Dakota

Kenn Pierson, left, talks with Shelby Lee, grand-niece of Badger Clark, and Greg Scott, the editor of "Cowboy Poetry: Classic Poems & Prose by Badger Clark" during the Celebration of Badger Clark on Sept. 2 in Custer State Park. (Photo courtesy of Kenn Pierson)1 / 2
Kenn Pierson and Darryl Patten shake hands on stage at the premier production of "Mountain Thunder in 1985 at Dakota Wesleyan University. (Photo courtesy of Kenn Pierson) 2 / 2

For Badger Clark fans, it was a year of milestones.

2017 marked the 100th anniversary of the publication of Clark's "Grass Grown Trails," the 80th anniversary of him being named South Dakota's first poet laureate, the 60th anniversary of Clark's death and the 20th anniversary of the PBS film about Clark — based on the play written by Mitchell native Kenn Pierson titled, "Mountain Thunder: A Ballad of Badger Clark."

To celebrate the monumental year, a celebration of Clark, featuring Pierson as one of four guest speakers, was held in Custer State Park earlier this month. And the celebration will end on Sept. 22 with the Badger Clark Cowboy Music and Poetry Gathering in Hot Springs.

And although Pierson, an alumni of Mitchell High School and Dakota Wesleyan University, won't be able to attend the music and poetry gathering, he was able to attend the first celebration on Sept. 2 and he couldn't have been happier with the turnout.

"It went very well," he said of the celebratory event at the Custer State Park, which included a viewing of Pierson's film. " ... There were many anniversaries happening and it was a good reason to get together."

Pierson was born and raised in Mitchell, graduating from the high school in 1975. He then attended Dakota Wesleyan University and graduated in 1979. While at Dakota Wesleyan, Pierson discovered a number of unpublished works written by Clark. And it was the set of letters by Clark, put together by the late Jim McLaird, that inspired Pierson's play.

What he thought best displayed Clark's personality and philosophy, Pierson's play premiered at Dakota Wesleyan in 1985. Dakota Wesleyan's director of drama, Darryl Patten, portrayed Clark. The resemblance and mannerisms of Patten to Clark was uncanning, Pierson said, and people loved it.

"People who had actually seen BC in person, they were often coming up to Daryl after the show and saying it was like seeing Badger again," Pierson said.

The play soon took off. Even hosting performances in Japan, Pierson said. And with Patten as the star, the play became a film in 1997.

"I never imagined it would take to the road so much," Pierson said. " ... but I think because of that historical aspect of the character being a real person who once lived, that audience really enjoyed the play."

A lasting impact

Patten died before the taping of the Badger Clark film was complete in 1997. But it was his portrayal of Clark that boosted Clark's already lasting memory in South Dakota.

And as a Mitchell native himself and a writer, Pierson was immediately interested by Clark's life and his impact made on South Dakota to this day.

"I think his personal struggle as a writer, or personal ambitions is what every writer experiences, and we all, myself included, that part of it, personally captured me," Pierson said.

Pierson now works as a college professor at Rio Hondo College in California, where he's been for the past 20 years. He returns to Mitchell at least once annually as he still has "a lot of attachments to the area."

And as a fan of Clark and writer of the play, he hopes South Dakotans can remember Clark for his contributions in writing and his connections to the old west, he said. Although he's a 20th century writer, Pierson said, Clark could still write about these connections, which made him "exceptional."

"He's touched a lot of lives," Pierson said of Clark, who lived near Mitchell for a portion of his life. "He's a very colorful character with a lot of Mitchell connections throughout the years."