Harold Thune, SD basketball great and WWII pilot hero, dies at 100

The father of U.S. Sen. John Thune was "the embodiment of the American Dream," his son said

Harold Thune
Harold Thune

Harold Thune, one of South Dakota's great basketball players and an accomplished World War II Navy fighter pilot and known for being U.S. Sen. John Thune's father, died Saturday, Aug. 15. He was 100.

In a statement, John Thune called his father "the embodiment of the American Dream."

“He was a small-town South Dakota kid who worked hard and valued God, family, and country," Thune said. "He lived a life of purpose that imparted a set of values on me and my siblings that I’ve always tried to embody and pass on to my kids and grandkids. And as a kid himself, he answered our nation’s call to defend freedom and help free the world from tyranny and oppression during World War II. He was my hero."

His death Saturday came on the 75th anniversary on VJ Day, commemorating the Allied victory over Japan in World War II.

"This hurts, and I’m going to miss him, but I can’t help but smile knowing he’s been reunited with my mom, the love of his life," John Thune continued. "I’ll miss you, dad, but thank you for making me a better person, a better father, and a better citizen of this country you helped defend.”


Born Dec. 28, 1919, Harold Thune was born in Mitchell, and his family moved to Murdo when he was 11, in the heart of the Great Depression. Harold's father, Nicolai, was an immigrant from Norway who had founded Thune's Hardware in Mitchell. (The business in Mitchell still has the Thune name but is no longer owned by the family.)

The family changed their last name from Gjelsvik to Thune in 1906 when they immigrated to the U.S. after immigration officers told them that Gjelsvik was too difficult to pronounce. Thune was the name of the family homestead in Norway.

In a 2016 Mitchell Republic story , Thune described basketball, whether it was outside against the family garage or getting the key from the school superintendent, as an escape.

"During the depression, we played a lot, whether we got in the gym or not," he said.

Thune played for the Murdo Coyotes from 1935 to 1937, with the last of those seasons including a trip to the Class B state tournament in 1937, in which the Coyotes fell to Doland 32-27 in the state championship game. Thune was all-tournament team selection and the team's captain. If not for a large early deficit, the Coyotes might have won that game, Thune said.

Harold Thune, center, is honored during a timeout during a Dec. 3, 2016 game at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls between Thune's alma mater, Minnesota, and Vanderbilt. (Marcus Traxler / Republic)
Harold Thune, center, is honored during a timeout during a Dec. 3 game at the Sanford Pentagon between Thune's alma mater, Minnesota, and Vanderbilt. (Marcus Traxler/Republic)

It was a local connection with Murdo's doctor that directed Thune to Hibbing Junior College in Hibbing, Minnesota in 1938, and Thune's team won the conference title there in 1938. Soon after, University of Minnesota coaches saw Thune and thought there might be a spot for him with the Gophers. Thune played for three years in the Big Ten from 1939 to 1941, and was Minnesota's MVP in 1940, despite standing just 5-foot-11 in an era without a three-point line and when the conference's tallest player was 6-foot-4.


Thune's college days were also defined by how he got home: he hitchhiked.

"It wasn't really until later that we learned what kind of player Dad was," said U.S. Sen. John Thune said in 2016. "I mean, his whole career of playing from a small town and then hitchhiking home from Minneapolis. That is crazy."

After his time at the University of Minnesota and graduating in 1942, he was an accomplished Navy fighter pilot. His squadron was on the USS Intrepid, where he shot down four Japanese Zeroes and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

He ran a hardware store for several years before going to work for the school district. He was an assistant coach at Murdo High School, where he taught and also served as athletic director. His wife, Pat, worked as the school librarian. The Thunes married in 1943 in Florida while Harold was completing advanced flight training during World War II.

The honors for Harold Thune had followed in the years since his great collegiate athletic days. He was a member of the South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame and the South Dakota High School Basketball Hall of Fame. The home gymnasium for the Jones County High School team is named the Harold Thune Auditorium.

He also coached basketball and football in Murdo, he played into his 60s in faculty basketball games and even coached six-player girls basketball in the 1970s.

The Thunes had five children: sons Bob, Rich, John and Tim, along with daughter Karen. Harold also served as an assistant basketball and football coach in Murdo. A 2010 story described Harold Thune has someone who stayed in shape in his later years by playing golf but took close care of his wife, Pat, who battled dementia prior to her death at age 90 in 2012.

Traxler is the assistant editor and sports editor for the Mitchell Republic. He's worked for the newspaper since 2014 and has covered a wide variety of topics. He can be reached at
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