By his own admission, Joseph Gebel likes to talk.

A conversation with him quickly proves that to be correct. He's also good at it, maintaining a flow of communication that keeps both the conversationalists engaged and the topics on track.

That skill served him well when he was elected as governor at the 2021 South Dakota Boys State conference in Aberdeen in late May and early June. Gebel, who will be a senior at Mitchell High School this fall, is the first representative from Mitchell to be elected as governor of the annual gathering of high school students from around South Dakota. He was recognized for his achievements at recent meetings of the Mitchell Board of Education and the Mitchell City Council.

“A funny story about my first day of preschool - I went around to every kid I could find and introduced myself,” Gebel told the Mitchell Republic in a recent interview. “With running for governor at Boys State, that’s what I did to run. I’ve always liked talking to people, and a lot of that has been useful throughout high school, I just never realized how useful.”

Boys State is an educational program for United States students. It was founded in 1935 in Illinois to counter the socialism-inspired Young Pioneer Camps. At Boys State, participants learn the rights, privileges and responsibilities of franchised citizens. The training is objective and centers on the structure of city, county and state governments and operated by students elected to various offices. American Legion posts select high school juniors to attend the program through an application and interview process.

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South Dakota Boys State was founded at Aberdeen in 1940 and it has been a yearly event since 1946.

Gebel, who said he tried every sport he could while coming up through the Mitchell School District but didn’t care for any of them, found his place with the debate team. And he and the team have seen considerable success.


““Debate team is really where I found my niche.”

—Joseph Gebel, Incoming Mitchell High School Senior and Governor of 2021 South Dakota Boys State


Though he applied for Boys State, he admits that after a long junior year of high school, he was a bit tired and not entirely sure what to expect. But upon his arrival at Northern State University in Aberdeen, host site of the event, he found his habit of engaging people in conversation could build bridges.

“Debate team is really where I found my niche,” Gebel said. “I had found something that was good for me, and a lot of that has been useful throughout high school. I just never realized how useful.”

The nearly 300 participants are divided into two fictitious political parties, the Nationalists and the Federalists, and each begins to form a leadership structure. His friendliness, gregariousness and a sly sense of humor won several new friends and supporters not only in his own party, but with the opposition Federalist party as well.

Some of his peers thought those were qualities that could unite a party voting base and maybe even win over a few votes from the opposition side.

“Someone suggested I should run for governor, but I wasn’t really super-focused. But I started running, and it was so much fun,” Gebel said. “But it was exhausting.”

He ended up forming a campaign team, securing what essentially amounted to a campaign manager and a handful of loyal supporters who helped spread the word about his candidacy. In addition to other Boys State activities, he used his hour-and-a-half of daily free time over the course of the event to introduce himself, shake hands, talk hot button topics and encourage fellow attendees to cast a vote for him.

The more involved he and his team got in the election process, the more they began to take the competition seriously. Gebel and his team crafted a campaign platform revolving around a handful of issues that his party felt were important to pursue during their government exercise.

“I’m kind of shocked at how adult it all felt. It wasn’t like we were kids playing politics. I was staying up past curfew working with my guys on campaign policy, and it was a lot of hard work, but for me it was an adrenaline rush. I had a rush all the way through," Gebel said.

Gebel was eventually set against his final Federalist opponent, and a crucial moment in his quest for the governor’s seat arrived: a debate between the two.


““I’m kind of shocked at how adult it all felt. It wasn’t like we were kids playing politics. I was staying up past curfew working with my guys on campaign policy, and it was a lot of hard work, but for me it was an adrenaline rush. I had a rush all the way through.”

—Joseph Gebel, Incoming Mitchell High School Senior and Governor of 2021 South Dakota Boys State


The pair jostled over topics ranging from teacher pay to abortion. And while Gebel expressed his opinion on some topics, he navigated around certain issues that his party members had not come to consensus on, feeling it was more important to tell voters he wasn’t yet decided on a stance than to try and make a point he felt would not garner him votes anyway.

“I’m here to represent my constituents. It’s not appropriate to answer when I don’t know what they want,” Gebel said. “That was my weakest part of the debate, but I think I handled it well.”

His fellow attendees agreed. He won the election with 80% of the vote.

“I was dead tired, but I was very surprised when I won,” Gebel said.

The last two-and-a-half days of the five-day event saw Gebel fulfill the duties of Boys State governor. He formed a cabinet out of colleagues he had met during the campaign.

He helped pass and veto various bills. Like the rest of the event, some of it was lighthearted and just a way to learn about the lawmaking process. One bill outlawed whale hunting in South Dakota, but Gebel was impressed with some of the more serious-minded bills the participants put forward, such as a bill that would help reduce repair costs on farm machinery.

It was all an excellent way to learn about how a group of people come together to make policy, he said.

“(The two parties) were fighting for stuff, and I made sure to keep my promises,” Gebel said. “Then I got impeached.”

Gebel wasn’t impeached due to anything he did wrong. It is a long-standing tradition to impeach the Boys State governor at the end of the event. The governor still holds his job and completes his term, however. In addition to his governorship, he even took home the Outstanding Speaker Award, an appropriate feather in the cap for the debate standout.

He said he was particularly honored to be the first student from Mitchell to be selected as governor in the history of the event. Mitchell is an excellent example of a South Dakota community that has it all, and he’s proud to call it home.

“It feels really good to represent the city that raised, educated and fed me. It’s amazing to represent them,” Gebel said. “For me, it’s the perfect size. It has amazing restaurants, fairs, an awesome school district. I can’t say enough about it.”

Gebel will start his senior year this fall, where he will complete his high school experience while taking some advanced college classes. He is considering attending the University of South Dakota for college.


“It feels really good to represent the city that raised, educated and fed me. It’s amazing to represent them. For me, it’s the perfect size. It has amazing restaurants, fairs, an awesome school district. I can’t say enough about it.” ”

—Joseph Gebel, Incoming Mitchell High School Senior and Governor of 2021 South Dakota Boys State


Looking back on his experience, he feels the event helped prepare him for the next stage of his education and life. He expressed his gratitude to both the American Legion Post 18 in Mitchell, Mitchell School District and his friends and family for their support.

He said juniors-to-be should consider taking part, either in Boys State or Girls State, even if they’re not sure it’s something they want to do. After all, he didn’t, and it ended up being a fantastic experience.

“You meet people you’d never have met otherwise. You do not feel like a kid playing politics. You feel like you’re part of something and meeting people on a much bigger level. There’s a sense of importance that doesn’t fade the entire time,” Gebel said. “I did not go into this thinking it would be awesome, but it’s something you’ll remember the rest of your life.”