It’s been 30 years since I had the opportunity to sing with the late Gov. George Mickelson at an Earth Day celebration, but when I saw a newspaper clip of that long ago moment, I swear I heard him belting out “This Land is Your Land.”
The news clip contained a photograph of Mickelson at the celebration in a city park in Pierre, I was a part of a trio of guys — with Marty DeWitt and Larry Johnson, for those who know either of those crazy musicians — who played some songs before the speeches. Then we accompanied the governor and the audience in Woody Guthrie’s well-known song that celebrities our shared land. The year was 1990, the 20th anniversary of a day that draws awareness to the need to protect the environment.
The photo and the memories it brought made me smile. I needed that too. I’d just been reading stories about the April 19, 1993, airplane crash in which eight men, including Mickelson, lost their lives. Each year when that date comes around, I feel the need to read and remember, even though it tears at my spirits nearly as strongly all these years later as it did when it happened. The shock that accompanied the news in 1993 is gone. The sadness remains.
I jumped, then, at the chance to smile and remember some good times with the big (6-4, maybe 250) guy from Brookings who brought a larger-than-life presence and a ramming-speed philosophy to South Dakota’s executive office. As serious as he could be when the situation demanded, Mickelson often acted like an overgrown kid. I thought that the first time I met him after he won election to the state House of Representatives in 1974, and I thought it often through his time as Speaker of the House and on into the governor’s chair.
That day in the park when we sang together, Mickelson stood between me and Marty. He inspected our guitars, and he said something like, “I should warn you. I didn’t get elected for my singing voice. What I might lack in quality I’ll try to make up for in enthusiasm.” He did too, belting out the lyrics with gusto and clearly enjoying the event and the receptive audience. If he felt self-conscious about his singing, it sure didn’t show. He just sang and grinned and laughed.
In the pile of folders in my work desk, I have a black-and-white photo of Mickelson joining the dance band I played in at the time to sing that song at a Brown County stock show or something like that. My big brother emceed the event and led the singing. In the photo, faded though it is, I’m grinning, my brother is grinning and Mickelson is grinning.
As governor, Mickelson must have been a scheduler’s nightmare. He couldn't see someone in the hall or on the street without moving that way to greet them. He just plain liked people. He approached virtually everyone with an outstretched hand. And with his long arms, that outstretched hand had quite a reach. This no handshake business in the time of COVID-19 would have frustrated him no end.
At some point in a news career, I suppose every reporter has been called on the carpet by a governor who didn’t like one of their stories. Mickelson tried to do that to me once. I walked into his office. He sat there frowning, his eyes dark. As he started to complain about what I’d written, though, his eyes came alive, the corners of his mouth started turning up, and pretty soon he was laughing. I joined in. When that guy laughed, it was impossible not to join him.
Before our conversation ended, he told me his staff often said he was no good at all at the business of scolding people. No matter how he tried, he couldn’t stay mad at anyone.
Somehow, I think people recognized that. I think it was part of what drew them to him. It was part of what made his death so hard, so personal, for so many South Dakotans. They didn’t just lose a leader. They lost a really good guy.