Talk about a fence for the governor’s mansion brought to mind an interview I did with a first lady during which we encountered a man crawling across her backyard patio.
You probably know of the plan for an eight-foot security fence around the grounds of the executive mansion in Pierre. Currently, the mansion is open to the streets and sidewalks in all directions. Some social-media commenters have called the idea of the fence $400,000 worth of foolishness, an ego trip for a governor. Others say a fence should have been built long ago.
West River farmers say the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now. A security fence for the mansion isn’t quite a row of elms or Russian olives, but you get the point. Those who think it is necessary want it yesterday. Those who think it isn’t needed want incontrovertible evidence of a clear and present danger.
Here’s a story from the late 1980s. George Mickelson was governor. Linda Mickelson was first lady. They lived in the old mansion, the wood-frame WPA project from the 1930s. Mrs. Mickelson, considering upgrades for the aging place, showed me around during an interview, pointing out problems and concerns. Outside, as we turned the corner to the back yard, we saw a guy crawling across the patio bricks.
Turned out I knew the guy. He was a Health Department employee looking for a special brick. The brick read “Don’t Spit on Sidewalk.” It was part of a national awareness campaign — tuberculosis or polio — in the 1950s. My friend didn’t want the brick thrown away during the upgrades. He was harmless and well-intentioned. Still, he was an uninvited guy in the mansion’s backyard while the first lady was out walking around.
Another incident of which I’m aware happened some years before that. A guy whose word I trust, told me a member of the residence staff came down the stairs one afternoon to find a stranger in the front room talking with one of the governor’s children. Turned out the guy had been drinking and was harmless enough. But a strange guy in the living room of the governor’s mansion chatting with one of the kids?
I suppose there are other stories over the years that I simply didn’t hear. I know security has been enhanced in many ways at the Capitol and at the residence. Security people keep track of members of the governor’s family. Cameras are in place — how many and where, I don’t know. And I’m sure there are many features of which I'm completely unaware.
I’ve always liked the open ground for the mansion. We lived across the street from that well-kept lawn and those stately trees for 43 years. My kids played there with neighbor kids and governors’ kids. Now and then a governor would step out of the house and join the fun. When my kids were growing, the residence was just another house on the block, although when Bill Janklow was governor, the place had a motorized goose decoy big enough to hold a couple kids as it sped down the curved driveway. Not every house in the neighborhood offered that level of recreation.
I remember walking past the New York governor’s residence in Albany 25 years ago. It had a fence, security gates, guards and a serious-looking dog. The reporters I was visiting greeted my surprise at the level of security with, “Your state doesn’t fence the residence?”
Several anti-fence comments on social media seemed to be from people who dislike Gov. Kristi Noem. She isn’t or shouldn’t be the point. The issue is whether a security fence is necessary for the safety of South Dakota’s governors and their families. I hope that’s what drove a state board’s decision last month to authorize the project.
I’m pretty sure I won’t like the way a fence makes the mansion grounds look. I don’t like the metal detectors at the entrance to the Capitol building. I don’t like a lot of things about our changing world. It isn’t always about me. I don’t like that much, either.