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You know what we say about preachers' sons: they like to live life on the edge. George McGovern was born at Avon in 1922, the son of a Methodist pastor. He volunteered for the Army Air Force after Pearl Harbor and flew 35 missions in the plane he called Dakota Queen.
His plane, named for his young bride back home, was hit by enemy fire on a bombing mission in 1944. One engine quit and another caught fire, but he somehow kept it in the air and brought his crew home. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
When the fighting stopped, he could have come home. But he volunteered to stay overseas and fly food into the European communities that he'd been bombing.
"The streets (of Italy) were full of young women selling themselves, not because they were immoral but because that was the only way they could scrape together enough to take care of their children," he remembered in an interview with South Dakota Magazine in 2001.
Those young women made a lasting impression on the young preacher's son, who came back to South Dakota and went wild.
He actually tried to revive the two-party system in South Dakota, going town-to-town and door-to-door to organize the Democratic Party. There were but a handful of Democratic lawmakers in Pierre and no statewide officials from the party. The young McGovern spoke to Rotary Clubs and Chambers of Commerce, selling the idea that one-party government was hurting their communities and state.
He won a U.S. House seat in 1956, became a friend of the Kennedy family and lost a bid for Senate in 1960. JFK asked him to head his Food for Peace agency, and he leaped at the opportunity. Two years later he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1962, edging Sen. Joe Bottum by less than 600 votes.
The rest is American history. McGovern rose to national stature in 1968 as an early and vocal opponent of the Vietnam War. It was the same year that Dusty Springfield had the hit song, "The Son of a Preacher Man."
I got to know him in 1974 while working as a legislative aide to U.S. Rep. Frank Denholm in Washington, D.C. McGovern had just lost the presidential race, and was a national figure. His opponent, Richard Nixon, was about to resign from office and if the election had been held that summer it would've been a landslide in the other direction.
One of my jobs as the youngest staffer in the office that Watergate summer was to escort people across the Capitol complex to find George McGovern's office. They were teenagers, farmers, seniors, mayors and lobbyists. He treated everyone the same — with a gracious smile and all the time his staff would allow. After about a dozen such visits, he finally realized that I wasn't part of the visiting entourage but he still welcomed me just as warmly.
We had occasion to keep in contact through the years. He lost the U.S. Senate seat in 1980 but he stayed involved in South Dakota life. I was a journalist, and became a state legislator in 1993 so our paths continued to cross.
Our last serious conversation happened about two years ago when my daughter, Katie, and I interviewed the aging senator in his Mitchell library. He seemed satisfied with his life, as we looked back. But at age 88, he still had a strong sense of purpose.
He was excited that he could still feed massive numbers of people — far more than he ever imagined when he flew back into Europe with a cargo of food rather than bombs. He was also wild about the idea of educating girls in poor countries. He said it might do more than almost anything else to end poverty and conflict.
He was a preacher's son — wild with compassion for the disenfranchised and forgotten among us.