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Memories of McGovern: Friends, colleagues, biographer recall the ‘prairie politician’

Former Senator, presidential candidate remembered for decency, humility, mentorship

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Author Mark Lempke speaks during the McGovern Day celebration Thursday, Sept. 21, 2022 at Dakota Wesleyan University. The event observed the 50th anniversary of McGoverns bid for the White House and what would have been the year of his 100th birthday.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic
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MITCHELL — The audience laughed, murmured their approval and gave several standing ovations as friends and colleagues of George McGovern recounted myriad tales of their experiences with the late South Dakota senator, presidential candidate and Mitchell resident.

And their recollections all tended to affirm the same thing: McGovern was a kind, decent, humble man and politician, one who provided inspiration and mentorship to an entire generation of young people eager to change the world for the better.

“I think people are eager to come back because there’s something about that legacy that they want to see more of in our politics today,” Dan Kittle, president of Dakota Wesleyan University, told the Mitchell Republic. “They come back because they want to reconnect, but they also want to touch something that’s maybe hard to describe. That’s what we all feel when we talk about George McGovern.”

Dozens of individuals associated with McGovern, his campaign and the political world of the 1970s came from around the country and were in attendance Thursday afternoon at George McGovern Day on the campus of Dakota Wesleyan University to hear and share stories of a man they both continued to miss and admire. The event was held to observe the 50th anniversary of his failed 1972 failed presidential bid against Richard Nixon and the year that would have marked his 100th birthday.

McGovern died in 2012, but the memories of his life and leadership were strong on the Dakota Wesleyan campus, where he both studied and taught and where the library and a museum bear his name.

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“He was a great man, there’s no question,” said Thomas Knock, chair of the history department at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas and author of the McGovern biography The Rise of a Prairie Statesman: The Life and Times of George McGovern. “He was one of the great statesmen of the 20th century, in my opinion. Probably, of all the people who didn’t get to be president, his not having gotten there is probably the greatest tragedy of all those who didn’t win. Because he had such great promise.”

Knock was on hand for an hour-long presentation on the national and international political implications of McGovern’s work, but his work as a biographer allowed him to speak with the former senator on several occasions. That allowed him to develop a strong sense of what made the man tick, as well as the factors that shaped him and helped him become a respected political figure.

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Thomas Knock, chair of the history department at Southern Methodist University and a George McGovern biographer, speaks McGovern's national and international impact during McGovern Day Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022 at Dakota Wesleyan University.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

Mitchell itself was one of those factors. A relatively small town but large enough to have a window to the outside world, it shaped McGovern in his early days.

“Mitchell was, and still is, only about 15,000 people, but it was big enough to open a window of possibilities for him. It had two movie theaters, and he would sneak off to the movies all the time, they only cost a nickel or 10 cents,” Knock said. “The Corn Palace was like a hippodrome and invited all kinds of famous speakers and all kinds of entertainers in the 1930s and 1940s.”

His military service in World War II also opened his eyes to a larger world, meeting fellow soldiers from around the country and experiencing new and foreign cultures.

“It broadened the horizons of everybody who was shipped overseas. It was an opportunity to see how big the world was,” Knock said.

After his political career took off, McGovern made his way into the lives of countless people, ranging from fellow politicians, educators and the public at large. Several of those people spoke about him in glowing terms Thursday afternoon.

Former South Dakota governor Harvey Wollman spoke fondly of his friendship with the senator, recounting a particular Sunday the two spent together in church, where McGovern wowed a mostly-Republican congregation. The service included the hymn “Throw Out The Lifeline.”

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“What better legacy could you describe for George McGovern than as a person who wanted to throw out a lifeline? Throw it out to the hungry. Throw it out the depressed. The people who needed health care. The people who were prejudiced against. The soldiers who were dying unnecessarily in the war,” Wollman said. “I believe in George McGovern, the man who tried with his life to throw out a lifeline to millions. That’s the highest tribute I can pay to that man.”

Judy Olson Duhamel, a former chair of the South Dakota Democratic Party, noted his ability to act as a quiet mentor. Sometimes that mentorship would take place with discussions across a kitchen table over a tuna fish sandwich, but the discussions were deep and inspiring for her, she said.

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Friends, colleagues and admirers from around the country were on hand Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022 during McGovern Day at Dakota Wesleyan University. The event observed the 50th anniversary of George McGovern's 1972 presidential bid and what would have been the year of his 100th birthday.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

“The quality time and the mentorship and the human being will always remain in my heart, which is full of admiration for George McGovern. Much of our relationship was behind the curtain, that kind of counsel and consultation. That kind of significance and confidence. So thank you for giving me the opportunity today to get on the front side of the curtain and honor George," she said.

Jack Marsh, a former editor with the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, was a newcomer to South Dakota when he took the position and had to learn about his new surroundings very quickly.

Through his work, he developed a deep friendship with McGovern, attending football games, lunches and church services. When McGovern died, Marsh realized just how profound an impact McGovern had on him. He said he knew he wasn’t the only one who felt that way about their connection to the man.

“All of us, aren’t we the fortunate ones? To have known George McGovern? To have learned from his example?” Marsh said with a crack in his voice. “The integrity of this man. A man who truly lived his faith. We are among the most fortunate people on the planet to have known and to have been touched by him.”

The stories went on for two hours but couldn’t come close to being a comprehensive history of McGovern’s legacy. There was his opposition to the war in Vietnam. His work with the United Nations and the fight against global hunger. His embrace of a burgeoning women’s rights movement at a time before it was fashionable. His hope for improved health care.

But the inspiration provided by those works remain alive and well in the people who remember and share the legacy of George McGovern, said Joel Allen, director of the McGovern Center at Dakota Wesleyan University. The fact that, 100 years after his birth, and 50 years after a thwarted bid for president, people from his past were still showing up to honor his legacy speaks for itself.

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

The McGovern legacy is alive and well, Allen said, and the spirit on display at Dakota Wesleyan University Thursday proves it.

“There are so many people that came here and sacrificed their time and sacrificed by buying a plane ticket, getting a hotel room. Why? So they could talk about George McGovern,” Allen said. “(He) deeply impacted so many people and provided a model for what we want to see in our politicians. We want to see decency and goodwill and personal integrity. And he represented that to so many.”

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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