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Aberdeen's Populist Priest
Dec 9, 2014
South Dakota was the first state to allow voters to enact laws through the initiative and referendum. Since then, the people have voted to ban corporate hog farms, approve Right to Work, and pass laws on term limits, Daylight Saving Time and dove hunting. In the November 2014 election, South Dakotans took it upon themselves to raise the minimum wage.
A Catholic priest from Aberdeen is the father of the initiative and referendum. Father Robert Haire was born in Michigan in 1845. He grew up in an Irish Presbyterian family, but taught school as a young man and boarded with an Irish Catholic family. They inspired him to convert in 1865 and he eventually entered the seminary. He headed west to Brown County, Dakota Territory with several of his parishioners, arriving on June 26, 1880. The next day he said his first mass in a sod shanty, and began to plan for Brown County's first Catholic Church.
He founded a school, Presentation Academy, in 1888. And he became the state leader of the Knights of Labor, as well as their newspaper editor. From there his political involvement blossomed. He was active in the Dakota Farmers Alliance, a group created to protect farmers' interests from politicians, corporations and railroads. Haire was active in directing the Alliance's political wing, which later become the Populist Party. He advocated the idea of the initiative and referendum for years before it became a part of the Populists' platform.
Haire distrusted politicians and felt strongly that citizens should also have the ability and right to propose laws without having to go through elected representatives. In an 1891 issue of the Dakota Ruralist he wrote: "These men make the laws to suit themselves — are a law to themselves. The people seldom get any law passed they want."
South Dakota became the first state to adopt the initiative and referendum process in 1898, passing easily on the same ballot that re-elected South Dakota's only Populist governor, Andrew E. Lee. Twenty-six states now allow some variation of the initiative and referendum.
Father Haire left other great legacies in Aberdeen, including creating Northern State University, originally Northern Normal and Industrial School, in 1901. Today a memorial to Father Haire stands on campus.
As a political and religious leader during tumultuous times in our state's history, Haire made plenty of friends and enemies. He spoke his mind even when he knew it might antagonize Bishop Martin Marty or his own parishioners. He eventually was dismissed by Marty for his radical views. He remained a priest but could not practice. Later, Bishop Thomas O'Gorman reinstated him and appointed him chaplain to the Presentation Sisters, where he served for the remainder of his life. After Haire died in 1916, O'Gorman wrote this epitaph: "He had been in earlier years, when the State was still in the pioneer stage, a most zealous missionary. I believe that the last ten peaceful years of his life and his happy death were rewards of the good and fruitful work of the early years."