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OPINION: Appreciating life; Don Rounds knew how to do it

Some years ago, as I approached the back door of the state Capitol building at the start of a legislative day, Don Rounds motioned to me from the west corner of the building's annex.

Grinning, he led me around the corner to a parking lot nestled between the annex and the west wing of the main Capitol building itself. He took the sleeve of my winter parka and turned me a bit. Then he stood beside me and gestured up toward the massive dome of the Capitol. The sun, rising on the other side of the great old building, gleamed on the far side of the dome, its brilliance meeting the gray shadows from the side we gazed upon from far below.

"This is something everyone should see,'' he said, eyes dancing in the early morning light. "I think this is my favorite view of the Capitol dome.''

Over decades of covering state government for the newspaper, I'd seen the Capitol building and its dome from many angles. This was a new one, even though it was one anyone could see who stood in just that spot and faced just that direction at just that time of morning. Don was right. It was a striking view.

I doubt many people bother to look up from that spot. People tend to view the Capitol from somewhat farther away. By the time they get close to the doors, especially early in the morning, they have their heads down and their minds on the business that awaits them. Rounds didn't say it, but I had the impression he rarely had his head so deep into a coming day that he failed to appreciate the beauty around him.

Don Rounds died this past week. He lived 90 years, and nearly every time I saw him, he had the same appreciation for life he showed that morning he shared his Capitol view with me. He survived a spouse, Joyce, who died of breast cancer, and he found another life with a second wife, Rosemary. Don is the father of former governor and U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds, along with 10 other children. He taught school, coached, refereed games, worked in highway safety and lobbied for rural electricity and, for the longest time, for the petroleum industry. Around Pierre folks called him "Grandpa Don.''

When I was a young reporter and he was working the halls of the Capitol, we sometimes spent waiting time talking about athletes and games from the earlier days of South Dakota sports. He had seen just about all of the good ones, it seemed.

He had a passion for sports, whether the big time or a kids' game in grade school. At fifth- or sixth-grade traveling-team games, he'd sometimes yell, "Don't try a bounce pass. It might work,'' or "Use the backboard on those layups.'' Kids love the swish of the net, so yelling "use the backboard'' was about as effective as telling young baseball players "both hands when you catch a fly ball,'' which Don would also yell.

Once when his son was governor and my newspaper had me working a tough series of stories, I was feeling a little unwanted by quite a few officials in the administration as I moved through my days in the Capitol. Don caught me outside the third-floor elevator one afternoon and said quietly, "None of this is about you, you know. It isn't at all.''

Well, you might say that's the smart political move, to make sure the on-scene reporter doesn't start carrying a grudge against the people in charge. Maybe that's why he said it, too. I wouldn't have carried a grudge, but I appreciated his words. A message can be politically savvy and a decent gesture, too, can't it?

After I left the paper, I served on the city library board. Don served, too. He helped me get up to speed, usually with humor. "Now, this one, we could go to jail for if we don't handle it right,'' he'd say, and then he'd grin.

Don was a good-hearted, good-natured soul. Would that we all could appreciate life as he did.

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