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Governor George S. Mickelson.
Governor George S. Mickelson.

Twenty Years Ago

Apr 18, 2013

Yea, what good beginnings
To this sad end!
Have we had our innings?
God forfend!

So ends a poem titled Twenty Years Ago by D.H. Lawrence. What a sad end to happy beginnings. Is there a better way to express how we feel about the loss of Governor George Mickelson — twenty years ago?

Most of our readers will remember where they were on the evening of April 19, 1993 when the news came by radio and television that a plane had crashed in Iowa. At first the outcome was inconclusive. But no good news came. And then the worst. All on board were lost to us — the energetic young governor, five business leaders and two pilots — when the state airplane crashed into a brick silo on a farm near Dubuque, Iowa.

Twenty years ago. It hardly seems possible, maybe in part because many of the good deeds inspired by the governor continue to impact the lives of South Dakotans. (We say "inspired" because he would be the first to share credit with his staff, lawmakers, community leaders and the citizens who pay the taxes to make it all possible.) He inspired a resurgence in state pride by presiding over the state's centennial, spent political capital to start the REDI fund, found a permanent funding source for long-overdue water projects, brought environmental regulations out of the 19th century and — perhaps most importantly — worked tirelessly to rebuild relationships between whites and Native Americans after a contentious decade of strife.

He didn't succeed in everything. Some will remember his ambitious plan to start a commuter airline system in South Dakota to connect our larger cities. There were hardly any riders. Governor Mickelson just couldn't imagine why we wouldn't all want to hop and skip from Yankton to Mitchell to Aberdeen to Huron and back again. But mostly he had successes. He seemed to live a charmed life right to the end, and South Dakota benefitted from his good fortune. And then he was gone.

What if he'd lived longer? Served out his final term as governor? Went onto the U.S. Senate? What would South Dakota look like today? Even better, I promise you. There would have been other reforms: on my first day in the legislature in 1993 he was presiding over a big meeting that he'd called to find a way to provide health insurance to people who couldn't get it on the open market. He became visibly irritated when several insurance executives balked at his idea of a risk pool. He eventually stood and admonished them. Before he was finished, he was red-faced and he looked eight feet tall. And the room was silent, and we all went to work on a risk pool.

We would be a better state if George Mickeson was 72 years old and alive today. I'm certain of that.

We didn't have the governor for the full nine innings. As too often happens with the best and brightest, he came and went too soon.

But we had him. He was all South Dakota. And he always will be.



07:48 am - Fri, April 19 2013
Stephen Williamson said:
I was conversing with a history professor a year or two ago about Gov. Mikkelson and he said something very interesting which I agree with. When that plane went down, the powerbase of the South Dakota moderate/progressive wing of the Republican party went down with it. Since his death, there has been no proper check or balance of the more conservative wing of the party. Besides that group being a lot of real good people dedicated to South Dakota, the day that plane went down so did the moderate Republican Party in South Dakota.
08:13 am - Fri, April 19 2013
Bernie said:
Although they may not want me to say so, Stephen, I would say that all the current caucus leaders in Pierre are moderates. But the party's legislative group as a whole are certainly more conservative than they were 20 years ago.
03:50 pm - Fri, April 19 2013
Keith Jensen said:
Thanks Bernie, for sharing your thoughts with us. It was a sad day for the state and for a lot of us who considered him the best of friends. I also really appreciated your comments in the newspaper stories that I have always been a class act, as well as a great journalist. Proud to call you a friend.
04:33 pm - Tue, June 25 2013
Jim Rygg said:
The loss of Gov. Mickelson was a blow to the country as well as to South Dakota. I'm sure that he would have served in a national capacity later in his career.

As to the Republicans in Pierre being more conservative now, I think it might also be true that the Democrats are more liberal. Political polarization is a two-way street.

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