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Remembering the Preacher Politician

Oct 22, 2012

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.


09:29 am - Mon, October 22 2012
Heidi said:
I visited the McGovern Library in Mitchell for the first time a few weeks back. I couldn't imagine being a student a DWU and getting to study among one of our greatest South Dakotans! I especially enjoyed the exhibits devoted to George McGovern on the main floor. It's worth a visit for sure!
09:51 am - Mon, October 22 2012
Dotti Juris said:
A wonderful article - I enjoyed learned things about McGovern's past that I hadn't know before. Thank you!
10:16 am - Mon, October 22 2012
Jerry Hinkle said:
As with all truly great men, he kept his humility, which made him greater still!
05:24 am - Tue, October 23 2012
Inez L. Harris said:
I was one of those that was happty to say back during the "Nixon" fiascos, that, "I voted for McGovern." I have followed his life through all these years and been so grateful for his work with 'feeding the hungry'. May he long be remembered. Inez L. Harris
07:52 am - Tue, October 23 2012
Jon Graves said:
I have told this story before. Summer 1970 on the way back from Germany and headed to Vietnam (army). My roomate in Germany was from North Carolina and work summers DC - law school. We tried to see about 4 and Senator McGovern's office said come back at 1. I mentioned the only three democrats I knew in SD (USD). Back at one, he was bigger than life, and friendly. Asks why we are there and we mention Vietnam. He says we have to get something done to get out of that place. I say that is great our second point is you need to get it done in 30 days. Everything goes quiet, and then we all start laughing. The rest of the time was talking about the 3 democrats(Bernie knows them too) I knew in SD and some technical stuff. He had to get to the Senate for a vote. He took us with him to the building. The command of the discusions and the smile were great. I had no trouble voting for him in 1972. I still remember the smile.
11:58 am - Tue, October 23 2012
Laura Johnson said:
Let's see if I can remember this story correctly...

Back in the '80s, my grandfather was picking up his very conservative son-in-law at the Omaha airport. George McGovern was there, too. He came up to my grandfather and greeted him warmly. "LeRoy-how are things with your family? Are your brothers doing well? I suppose your parents Charley and Alma are gone by now. They sure were good Democrats."

My uncle was flabbergasted that a national figure would greet a farmer from Volin or remember his family. It was very satisfying for Grandpa.
12:09 pm - Mon, November 26 2012
Ivan Smason said:

When I was a boy, I learned something wrong
"Nixon's The One, McGovern's Landslide Wrong"

When I was in college, I saw George McGovern
He spoke on hunger did ex-Senator McGovern

A friend of mine and I got hungry and left that hunger talk
We got some great calzones and had our own talk

We had both grown up admiring President Nixon
Years later I would change my views on Nixon

Like McGovern, I would go on to get a Ph.D.
I didn't know until recently he earned a Ph.D.

I didn't know until recently that he was a war hero
George McGovern, unlike Nixon, was a war hero

Not long ago I finally, finally came to understand
Something it took me far, far too long to understand

I wish George McGovern had been our president
I wish George McGovern had been our president

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