SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - At a time when so many things feel wrong about politics, it’s easy to get nostalgic for less divisive days, when open arms defined populism more than tightly closed fists.
George Mickelson was a hulking South Dakota Republican who was born to be governor and lived up to that legacy, gaining the office in 1986 and winning re-election four years later.
By the time he embarked on an economic development trip to Cincinnati in April of 1993 with four state employees and three business leaders, his enthusiasm for the task of brightening the prospects of all South Dakotans pushed partisanship and well-worn stereotypes aside.
“He was pleased to be called a politician,” former Kansas senator and Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole told the Argus Leader . “Politics to George Mickelson meant making a difference in people’s lives.”
The enduring heartbreak for South Dakota is that the extent to which Mickelson succeeded in that mission was made evident by unthinkable tragedy, 25 years ago.
The state’s 28th governor was killed April 19, 1993 at about 4 p.m. when a twin-engine, eight-seat airplane encountered engine trouble from a broken propeller blade and crashed into a farm silo about 10 miles south of Dubuque, Iowa, killing everyone on board.
“It was almost surreal,” says Mark Mickelson, George’s oldest son, a Sioux Falls businessman who served six years in the state legislature. “You hear about tragic things happening to other people, and it had never been us. But then there it was.”
The sudden nature of the loss, coupled with the number of families impacted, made that evening and the ensuing days among the most anguished and consequential in state history. As the rest of the nation followed reports of a federal siege on a religious compound in Waco, Texas, that led to a massive fire and 76 deaths, South Dakotans looked within.
Also killed in the crash were two state pilots, Ron Becker and David Hanson, banker David Birkeland, power company executive Angus Anson, Sioux Falls Development Foundation leader Roger Hainje, economic development commissioner Roland Dolly and energy commissioner Ron Reed.
Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who served as development director for Children’s Home Society at the time, received a call from one of the society’s board members around informing him of the crash. As he turned on the TV to watch news reports, the enormity of the tragedy took hold.
“I knew many of those on the plane,” said Daugaard. “Roger Hainje was a schoolmate at the one-room school we both attended, and our families were very close. David Birkeland had given me my first job after I returned to South Dakota, following law school. Angus Anson was a donor to Children’s Home Society. It was truly a tragedy for our state, and it affected many people who lost personal friends.”
The death of the 52-year-old Mickelson, a former Brookings lawyer whose father served as governor more than 40 years earlier, set off a period of statewide mourning and reflection that made past differences - political, geographical, racial - seem shamefully insignificant.
Lieutenant governor Walter Dale Miller, a longtime friend of Mickelson, declared the rest of April a special period of mourning after huddling in Pierre with staff members, who had received a call from the Federal Aviation Administration around 5 p.m. with news that the state-owned plane had gone down.
Plans were made for Miller to be sworn in as governor the next day, though facing the future seemed a daunting prospect for a state just beginning to grieve. As he left the Capitol that night, stepping out into darkness, Miller had a simple message for reporters that had gathered.
“Say a prayer for us,” he said.
Mark Mickelson was attending Harvard Law School in 1993 and had run the Boston Marathon on the morning of April 19, commemorated as Patriots Day in New England.
Fatigued from churning through the 26-mile course in cloudy and drizzly weather, the 27-year-old was lounging around watching a movie with friends at his apartment that afternoon when the phone rang.
“There’s been an accident,” his uncle told him. “Your mom needs to talk to you.”
As Linda Mickelson shared the shattering news, Mark knew his life was forever altered. The older sibling to sister Amy and brother David would need to be strong despite waves of grief and doubt that threatened to knock him to the ground.
Back home, there was boundless support for a family that had been part of South Dakota politics since George T. Mickelson, Mark’s grandfather, entered the state legislature more than a half-century earlier.
Much was expected of the namesake, George S. Mickelson, and he delivered. At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, his physical size was matched by ambitious ideas, many of which reflected principle more than party line.
He worked to raise teacher salaries and increase state aid to schools while stressing economic development and manufacturing growth. He addressed a problem that many state leaders averted their eyes from, seeking to improve white and Native American relations by declaring 1990 the Year of Reconciliation.
Though some viewed that outreach as merely symbolic, it signified a willingness to step forward in good faith to explore solutions, no matter how long the process may take.
“He was a politician who was not driven by the power of the pull of the next election,” said Miller. “His motives all involved doing good things for other people, not himself. And his compassion for other people had no limits.”
On April 22, three days after the crash, an estimated 12,000 people walked past Mickelson’s flag-draped casket in the Capitol rotunda during the six-hour period before an afternoon memorial service, many pausing to admire a nearby portrait of the governor with his trademark smile.
Attending the service were 12 governors from other states, national Republican leaders such as Dole and John Sununu, and former South Dakota chief executives Frank Farrar, Harvey Wollman and Bill Janklow. Boy Scouts served as ushers and occasionally brushed away tears.
“For those of us who survived, there is a feeling that George did not live long enough to do all that he might have done,” said the Mickelsons’ former pastor, the Rev. Don Veglahn of Asbury United Methodist Church in Sioux Falls. “Life is not really measured by years, but by what we do with those years. By that measure, George Mickelson lived two lifetimes.”
For South Dakota as a whole, mourning for Mickelson was mixed with the realization that tragedy couldn’t stop the march of time. Other voices would have to emerge.
“When you lose one of your leaders, it’s like losing a leader in combat,” said former governor and World War II fighter pilot Joe Foss. “You step up and take the slack.”
Janklow challenged Miller in the 1994 Republican primary and prevailed, setting up his return to Pierre for two terms, followed by eight-year stints by Mike Rounds and Daugaard.
If the hope was that Mickelson’s broad-based example would spark a fresh era of leadership for all South Dakotans, that goal saw fits and starts. With healing came new agendas and priorities, but to heal does not mean to forget.
Later this year, the 25th anniversary of Mickelson’s death will be commemorated with a bronze bust to be placed in the House of Representatives lobby, a testament to the fact that his passion for public service and love for South Dakota continued to shine long after the darkest of days.
“It would be a tragedy of far greater proportion,” said Rev. Veglahn, “if we allowed a mangled airplane and silo on an Iowa farm to be the final word.”
Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com
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