Woster: Recalling the day South Dakota lost Gov. Mickelson, state leaders in plane crash

It seemed impossible just an energetic, upbeat man was gone so suddenly

Terry Woster
Terry Woster

Leaving work, I paused in the Associated Press office to watch television coverage of a standoff in Waco, Texas, then walked home to brown hamburger for supper.

The phone rang. An editor in Sioux Falls said the state airplane had crashed in Iowa. Not confirmed, but it looked like no survivors. Yes, the governor was on the plane. Better get to the Capitol.

Somewhere in the conversation I turned off the burner. I remember staring at the half-browned hamburger and asking Nancy if she would take over. Not sure when I’ll be back. I’ll try to call. It’s bad.

It didn’t take long to learn, unofficially, that Gov. George Mickelson had died in the crash. Official confirmation took time, during which people - Pierre-based reporters, members of the governor’s staff, cabinet secretaries and constitutional officers - gathered in the Capitol. Some hurried in and out of second-floor offices, others congregated in the rotunda, whispering, weeping, hugging, looking up to the stained-glass dome and shaking their heads.

At some point, I don’t remember exactly, Janelle Toman, the press secretary, gathered reporters in a conference room and confirmed first details. The first story I filed for the newspaper started simply: “South Dakota Gov. George Mickelson and seven others died Monday when a state airplane crashed and burned in eastern Iowa after developing engine trouble.’’


Even though we had known it was coming, the official confirmation drew audible gasps. Mickelson, the big guy with the broad smile. So alive, so optimistic, a chief executive whose staff affectionately called his governing style “ramming speed.’’ I had interviewed him the previous Friday, just before he left for a weekend at his lakeside cabin.

It seemed impossible just an energetic, upbeat man was gone so suddenly. There in the Capitol, even knowing the truth, for a moment I thought there must be a mistake. But, no.

During the days that followed, news accounts tended to begin the way my first story had, with Mickelson named and “seven others’’ mentioned. Well, sure, he was the governor. But as a family member of one of those others told me years later, “He wasn’t the most important person on the airplane for me.’’ No disrespect, but each of the others had a life, a family, friends, accomplishments, a story.

Thirty years later, the men and their stories should be remembered, along with the big guy, George Mickelson.

On the airplane that day were state pilots Ron Becker, 52, and David Hansen, 45; Sioux Falls banker David Birkeland, 54; power company executive Angus Anson, 38; Sioux Falls Development Foundation leader Roger Hainje, 43; state Economic Development Commissioner Roland Dolly, 37, and state Energy Commissioner Ron Reed, 52. Mickelson also was 52.

Imagine, given 30 additional years to live, the good these individuals might have done in their families, with their friends and for their communities and their state. Imagine how many graduations and weddings and birthday celebrations the eight men might have experienced, how they might have, well, lived.

No one, of course, was thinking long-term on that April 19 evening. The loss was immediate. The grief was overwhelming. The shared pain filled the shadows of the Capitol. People hurrying from one meeting to another tip-toed, as if the clicking of their heels on the marble would break into the sorrowful moment.

I remember sharing a hug with Joyce Hazeltine, the secretary of state, near the second-floor stairway. “It’s something so unbelievable you just can’t even let it sink in,” she said softly.


Lt. Gov Walt Miller walked by. A bit earlier, he had pushed aside a question about his succession to the governor’s office. Time for that tomorrow, he said, when he would take the oath of office. This night, he was on his way to the mansion to be with Mickelson’s family.

“Say a prayer for us,” he said. He meant for the families and for South Dakota, I knew, but he also meant for himself as he stepped into some big, big shoes.

The crash tore holes in a lot of hearts. Thirty years later, many of those holes have never healed, not completely.

Opinion by Terry Woster
What To Read Next
Get Local