When you play defense in the lane and an opposing player grabs the basketball and drives toward the hoop, you’re supposed to step into his path and make him either change course or charge into you for a foul.
But when you’re a 6-1, 150-pound center in the lane at the Gregory armory and the player with the ball in his hands and the basket in his sights is Mark Meierhenry, you might hesitate. In my case back in high school, I didn’t just hesitate. I stepped out of his way. Gosh, he looked big and fast coming toward me that night. Chamberlain lost the game, but I came away with no broken bones and all of my teeth.
Some years later, when I interviewed Meierhenry during his campaign for South Dakota attorney general, I described that moment. He laughed and shook his head. “I don’t remember anything like that,’’ he said.
When he died two weeks ago, I remembered the basketball moment and wondered briefly if I’d imagined it all these years. I had to call someone to confirm Mark had played basketball at Gregory. Sounds ridiculous, I know, but I didn’t want to be wrong in a story about Mark Meierhenry.
His school and mine were fierce rivals in prep sports in our younger days. In later years, when we’d talk, we’d sometimes mention the name of a kid we’d known from one of the dozens of small towns scattered around central South Dakota. One name brought up another, and the stories around each name came easily, letting us share hearty laughter over incidents on basketball courts and football fields and the dirt and cinder tracks of the time.
Meierhenry died too young at 75. He won his race for attorney general in 1978, the same year his longtime friend Bill Janklow won his first term as governor. Meierhenry chose not to make elected politics a career. After his terms ended, he built a successful law practice. When he died, family and friends lost a good man. Legal colleagues lost a top-notch lawyer. South Dakota lost a remarkable human being.
Mark and I were never what you’d call close friends. We were contemporaries, though, born in 1944 and raised in modest circumstances. You could say we shared the experiences and hopes and dreams of a generation of other kids from small towns and small schools. With his passing, I lost a valued acquaintance, an intelligent, good-natured guy who could always be counted on for spirited, thoughtful conversation in the Capitol halls or between sessions at the annual South Dakota Festival of Books.
Early conversations between reporter and elected official of necessity involved a clear, if casual, distance. As years passed, at chance meetings one place or another, we became just two older guys who liked each other, who shared a love for our home state and who had a basic understanding — never expressed in so many words — of the things that we believed mattered.
Several people who knew him well remembered Meierhenry for his legal skills and for the multiple times he argued cases before the United States Supreme Court. And make no mistake. He was a wonderfully accomplished lawyer whose record of Supreme Court appearances is equaled by few other attorneys.
What I liked most about him was the comfortable, captivating way he told stories. He’d been places, sure, but he always remembered his home country and the people he’d known growing up. He could tell who’d had a good pheasant hunt, who bought whose quarter of land and who sold their house to whom. As one of my aunts would have said, he never got above his raisin’. He was a terrific storyteller. Watching the way his eyes sparkled and his mouth twitched, you knew he was enjoying it as much as his listeners were.
You know that big kid who drove the lane against me way back when? Getting to know him as I did, I understand that if I’d stayed in his way, he’d have gone through me to score. But after the bucket, he’d have turned around, picked me up and made sure I wasn’t hurt.