McGovern Memories: Friends, Colleagues, and Biographer Remember “The Prairie Politician”

Mitchell – The audience laughed, murmured in agreement and welcomed by standing as friends and colleagues of George McGovern told countless tales of their experiences with the late South Dakota senator, presidential candidate and Mitchell resident.

And their memories all tend to confirm the same thing: McGovern was a kind, decent, and humble man and politician who inspired and mentored an entire generation of young men eager to change the world for the better.

“I think people are excited to be back because there is something about that legacy that they want to see more of in our politics today,” Dan Kettle, president of Dakota Wesleyan University, told Mitchell Republic. “They’re back because they want to reconnect, but they also want to touch something that’s probably hard to describe. That’s how we all feel when we talk about George McGovern.”

Dozens of individuals associated with McGovern, his campaign and the political world in the 1970s came from all over the country and were present Thursday afternoon on George McGovern’s Day on the Dakota Wesleyan University campus to hear and share the stories of a man they both continued to talk about. miss and admire. The event was held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his failed 1972 presidential bid against Richard Nixon and the year that would mark his 100th birthday.

McGovern died in 2012, but memories of his life and leadership are strong on the campus of Dakota Wesleyan University, where he studied and taught and where the library and museum bear his name.

“He was a great man, there’s no doubt he was,” said Thomas Nock, chair of the history department at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas and author of McGovern’s biography: The Rise of a Prairie Statesman: The Life and Times of George McGovern. “He was one of the greatest statesmen of the twentieth century, in my opinion. Perhaps, of all the people who did not become president, his failure to get there is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all those who did not win. Because he had such a great promise.”

Knock was present for an hour-long presentation on the national and international political ramifications of McGovern’s work, but his work as a biographer allowed him to speak with the former senator on several occasions. This allowed him to develop a strong sense of what made the man move, as well as the factors that shaped him and helped him become a respected political figure.

Thomas Nock, chair of the history department at Southern Methodist University and biographer of George McGovern, speaks about McGovern’s national and international impact during McGovern Day on Thursday, September 22, 2022 at Dakota Wesleyan University.

Adam Thori / Mitchell Republic

Mitchell himself was one of those factors. A relatively small town but large enough to be a window to the outside world, it shaped McGovern in his early days.

“Mitchell was, and still is, only about 15,000 people, but it was big enough to open a window of possibilities for him. He had two movie roles, and he sneaked into the cinema all the time, it only cost a nickel or 10 cents,” Knock said. The Corn Palace was a hippodrome and invited all kinds of famous speakers and all kinds of artists in the 1930s and 1940s.”

His military service in World War II also opened his eyes to a larger world, as he met fellow soldiers from all over the country and experienced new and foreign cultures.

“It broadened the horizons of every person who was shipped overseas. It was an opportunity to see the size of the world,” Knock said.

After his political career took off, McGovern made his way into the lives of countless people, ranging from fellow politicians, educators, and the public in general. Several of these people spoke about him in glowing terms on Thursday afternoon.

Former South Dakota Governor Harvey Woolman spoke fondly of his friendship with the senator, recounting a specific day the two spent together at church, where McGovern wowed a mostly Republican congregation. The service included the hymn “Throw Out The Lifeline”.

“What better legacy can you describe to George McGovern than as someone who wants to shed a lifeline? Throw it out to the hungry. Throw it out of depression. People who need health care. People who have been subjected to prejudice.” Soldiers who died needlessly in War.” “I believe in George McGovern, the man who tried with his life to throw a lifeline to millions. This is the highest honor I can give to this man.”

Jodi Olson Duhamel, former chair of the South Dakota Democratic Party, noted his ability to act as a quiet mentor. Sometimes that mentorship came through discussions across the kitchen table over a tuna sandwich, but the discussions were deep and inspiring to her, she said.


Friends, colleagues, and fans from across the country were on hand Thursday, September 22, 2022 during McGovern’s Day at Dakota Wesleyan University. The event marked the 50th anniversary of George McGovern’s presidential candidacy in 1972 and what would have been the year of his 100th birthday.

Adam Thori / Mitchell Republic

“Good time, guidance and a human will always be in my heart, full of admiration for George McGovern. A huge part of our relationship was behind the curtain, that kind of advice and counseling. That kind of importance and trust. So thank you for giving me the opportunity today to stand on the front side of the curtain and honor George” .

Jack Marsh, the former editor of Sioux Falls Argus Leader, was a newcomer to South Dakota when he took the job and had to learn about his new surroundings pretty quickly.

Through his work, he developed a deep friendship with McGovern, attending football matches, lunches, and church services. When McGovern died, Marsh realized how deeply McGovern’s influence was on him. He said he knew he wasn’t the only one who felt this way about their relationship with the guy.

“All of us, aren’t we lucky? To know George McGovern? To learn from his example?” said Marsh with a crackling voice. “The integrity of this man. A man who truly lived his faith. We are among the luckiest people on this planet that we have known and been affected by.”

The stories ran for two hours but did not come close to being a comprehensive history of McGovern’s legacy. There was his opposition to the war in Vietnam. His work with the United Nations and the fight against hunger in the world. His embrace of the burgeoning women’s rights movement sometime before that was fashionable. Hope to improve health care.

Joel Allen, director of the McGovern Center at Dakota Wesleyan University, said the inspiration provided by those works remains alive and well in people who remember and share the legacy of George McGovern. The fact that, 100 years after his birth, and 50 years after a failed bid for president, people from his past still came to honor his legacy speaks for itself.

Allen said McGovern’s legacy is still alive and well, and the spirit on display at Dakota Wesleyan University on Thursday proves it.

“There are a lot of people who came here and sacrificed their time buying a plane ticket, getting a hotel room. Why? So they could talk about George McGovern,” Allen said. “(It) has profoundly influenced a lot of people and has set a model for what we want to see in our politicians. We want to see decency, goodwill, and personal integrity. And it represented that to many.”

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