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Dakota Wesleyan’s McGovern Day celebrates legacy of '72 presidential candidate

Event marked Sen. George McGovern’s 100th birthday, 50th anniversary of 1972 presidential campaign

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Scenes from Dakota Wesleyan's McGovern Day on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022, at the School of Business, Innovation and Leadership building.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic
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MITCHELL — The crowd gathered, chatted and laughed with fond memories for a local Mitchell legend and beloved school alumnus.

For those gathered at the Dakota Wesleyan University School of Business, Innovation and Leadership on Thursday afternoon to observe the McGovern Day celebration, it was part homecoming, part history lesson and part family reunion.

“That’s a great way to say it. It feels like a family reunion,” said Joel Allen, director of the George McGovern Center for Leadership and Public Service at Dakota Wesleyan University. “It is something that people may not realize, but he deeply loved this institution.”

The day-long gathering saw hundreds of visitors to Dakota Wesleyan campus ranging from former politicians to ex-journalists to clergy to students and staff from the hosting university. It was a day to mark both the 50-year anniversary of McGovern’s bid for the 1972 presidential election and what would have been the year of his 100th birthday.

McGovern was raised in Mitchell, graduating from Mitchell High School in 1940 and from Dakota Wesleyan in 1946 after a stint in the military to serve in World War II interrupted his studies. His roots run deep in the community, but his legacy stretches out much further than that.

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The day’s activities included a number of different events that reflected on his time as a state and national legislator, a presidential candidate as well as an advocate against the war in Vietnam and his work fighting hunger around the world.

A symposium featuring two papers on McGovern and a photo essay of the 1972 campaign, in which he ran against but lost to Richard Nixon, opened the morning. That was followed by an afternoon session that kicked off with a presentation by Thomas Knock, a professor of history and chair of the history department at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Knock authored a biography of McGovern and presented a lecture on the historic impact of his politics and international work.

The afternoon continued with personal recollections from people who knew McGovern personally, with stories running the gamut, from warm and humorous to emotional. A birthday party gathering followed at the McGovern Library on campus before concluding in the evening with a banquet at the Sherman Center, where U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), who shares a name but no relation to George McGovern, gave the keynote address, along with figures that included Catherine Bertini, former executive director of the World Food Programme.

Several of those in attendance worked professionally with McGovern, campaigned for him in the 1970s or knew him personally outside of politics. But not everyone. Kevin Paulson, a Seventh-Day Adventist minister from Michigan was in attendance with several pieces of McGovern campaign memorabilia, including vintage magazines and books.

Paulson was only 12 years old during the 1972 presidential campaign, but McGovern’s run made a lifelong impression on him.

“When I was 12 years old I was inspired by his message to end the war in Vietnam and to give liberty and justice to all,” Paulson said. “That inspired me as an adolescent, and I have been one of his acolytes ever since.”

He admires the effect McGovern has in motivating young people to be of service to their community in whatever form that took. He tells young people in his denomination about McGovern and the grass-roots politicians of that time, and how young people made a difference in affecting change.

“He inspired people to recognize that they can make the world a better place,” Paulson said. “I tell them about Sen. McGovern, about Eugene McCarthy, about Bobby Kennedy and the others and how young people were so involved in those elections.”

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Dan Kittle, president of Dakota Wesleyan University, also hoped that the day honoring one of the school’s most beloved students and faculty members inspires them to take action to change the world for the better. Politics can often be ugly, something seen regularly on today’s national stage, he said. But McGovern showed that not only can change be achieved through the political system, it can be done with grace and class.

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That’s a good lesson for everyone, he said.

“Dakota Wesleyan has a long tradition of leadership and service, and George McGovern is emblematic of that. That legacy is still alive in our students today, and personally I hope that students can find inspiration from him to see politics as a way to make this a better place,” Kittle said. “I think right now there is some skepticism and concern about that, about the role of politics, but I think an event like this can revive and maybe inspire some of our students to live lives of leadership and service.”

Watch for more from McGovern Day in Saturday’s Mitchell Republic.

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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