Sen. Mike Rounds facing 'unknowns' while navigating holidays after wife's death
The former governor of South Dakota spoke candidly this week in Washington, D.C., about the death of his wife, Jean Rounds, his family members' new roles over the holidays, and a path toward public responsibility in government.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds' D.C. office is Dakota chic. There is a pillow embroidered with emblems of chislic and Lemmon's petrified wood forest. Stuffed bison jut out from walls, one overshadowing a portrait of another governor-turned-senator, Peter Norbeck . A white board announces commodity prices — winter wheat, November corn — from the grain elevator in Highmore, South Dakota.
Rounds, now 67, looks as he did for much of his public life, his dark brown hair flecked with grey, an action-figure hairdo familiar to generations of South Dakotans.
But as he sits serenely behind his desk, he discusses one thing that has changed forever.
"She would be here maybe three, four days a year," Rounds said of his wife, Jean, who died of sarcoma cancer in November . She preferred life in Pierre.
Washington, in other words, has stayed the same. The grief waits for him at home.
"Like I told the kids, one of the things that concerned me the most was coming home on a Thursday night and having an empty house,” Rounds said.
It's Christmastime in the nation's capitol. In the Senate, last-minute negotiations lifted a debt ceiling earlier this week. A day after talking to Forum News Service on Tuesday, Dec. 14, Rounds would vote for a $768 billion defense spending bill . He and his Republican colleagues are also watching Democrats try to mount a vote on Biden's social infrastructure bill prior to leaving for the holidays.
But for six weeks, whenever Rounds has returned to his home along the Missouri River, one of his adult children has kept the light on for him and been waiting for him inside.
"The kids recognize it, too," Rounds said.
"It" being that awful hole that fills a stomach, that maybe never goes away, when you lose a loved one, a spouse, a partner.
This isn’t his first holiday with grief. In 1987, he lost both his mother and grandmother. That year, he watched Jean pick up the traditions: the Christmas Eve chicken noodle soup (a holiday staple they'd kept after dispatching with oyster soup); the familiar gravy and cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving.
This Christmas Eve, Rounds' daughter and cousins will prepare the 12 chickens — deboning, boiling — like Jean did. They've put up her homemade decorations. Kids know Grandpa will pay for a present for each grandchild, but they should just pick out the gift. That was Jean's job, too.
There'll be more encountering Jean's absence in the coming days. He calls that the "unknowns that we find along the way, that you still discover."
For a politician, as Rounds understands, caring is the job. A personal mourning , however, one that brings tears and pauses, that frog in the throat that causes deeper breaths ... that's not required at all.
Throughout Rounds' long tenure in politics , Jean has been with him, from his underdog rise to the governor’s mansion in 2002 to the U.S. Senate in 2014. But even by Washington standards, the last year has been tumultuous.
After winning reelection in 2020, the conservative Rounds has bucked the Donald Trump wing of the GOP, voting to certify the presidential election and playing an active role in infrastructure talks (though he ultimately opposed the bill).
But 2021 has been personally challenging, too. He’s lived in "three places," he says.
When the Senate approved the infrastructure framework in August, Rounds was in a hotel in Rochester, Minnesota, caring for Jean as she received treatment at the Mayo Clinic, wheeling her to appointments. Just weeks ago, Rounds left Washington on a work day to take care of financial matters related to Jean's passing. His colleagues understood.
"For as much as we say Washington is a transactional town, we do have friendships," Rounds said. He noted he tells "folks back home" that Republicans and Democrats reached out to him before and after Jean's death.
Still, downtime is nil for Rounds in D.C. On Wednesday mornings, he chairs a Bible study with New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. Then, there’s the regular work: votes, committee hearings, meetings with other lawmakers. After attending an evening fundraiser or two, he's back at home with his "homework," a folder carrying papers related to the next day's business.
The former insurance firm partner says he finds diversion where he can. He likes Christmas movies such as "It's a Wonderful Life" and Bing Crosby's "Going My Way ," a 1944 prequel to "The Bells of St. Mary's," about an affable, singing priest, Father O'Malley.
In the film, the priest sits down at a piano to run a few jazz chords, telling two lovestruck neighbors that "religion doesn't have to be this [pounding stormy notes] ... taking all the fun out of everything. It can be bright, bring you closer to happiness."
It's a fitting political philosophy for the lifelong public servant, who has eschewed bitterness during a bitter year.
During a Dakotafest forum with constituents in Mitchell in August, a man in the crowd pressed Rounds — appearing with Sen. John Thune and Rep. Dusty Johnson — to push against vaccines, perpetuating a myth that people who've previously had COVID-19 had natural immunity against the illness. Before the others responded, Rounds picked up the microphone.
"I'm a believer [in vaccines]," Rounds told the man. "And let me share why."
On Tuesday, reminded of that conversation, Rounds reiterated his faith in vaccines. While strengthened by his trust in the medical community throughout Jean's treatments, he also as a governor authorized funding for human papillomavirus vaccines, at the recommendation of his Department of Health.
"If we can just save one life by getting kids vaccinated in South Dakota, it's a good thing," Rounds said. "And I still feel that way."
Rounds said he supports a COVID-19 vaccine requirement at the state level, for "kids going to school and for public safety," though he opposes a federal mandate. And he believes a cure for cancer is on the horizon with the aid of artificial intelligence.
"Our goal here is to save lives," Rounds said. "And I think that's part of what the responsibility of government is."
For a moment, the senator tightens his hands clasped below his chin, speaking now not only as a senator, but as a husband, his wife's memory not far from his care.