George Mickelson

by | November 29, 2012 4:50 pm


PIERRE, S. D. – It has been almost 20 years since the sitting governor of the state of South Dakota, George S. Mickelson, died in a plane crash on a farm near Dubuque, Iowa.

   Every time I come to the capital city of the Coyote State, there is always a stop by a statue in memory of him and seven others who died on the way home from Cincinnati, where they had journeyed on an economic development mission to try to save the biggest agricultural processing employer in South Dakota.

   The state aircraft, a Mitsubishi MU2 turboprop, after a propeller disintegrated, crashed into a silo and took the life of a man who might have been destined for national office. Certainly, he would have been elected to the U.S. Senate if he had survived and offered for election. There was only one problem with the job.  He wasn’t sure he wanted to live in Washington, a move which would have kept him away from his beloved home state.

   There is a sculpture here called the Fighting Stallions which was put in place to honor Mickelson and the others who died with him. As I stood in reverence near the memorial, a flood of memories returned to my consciousness, as they always do. 

   I thought of all the castigation we give politicians today. Have you heard anybody compliment a politician lately? While I am troubled that some politicians are self-serving and seem merely to have discovered the art of getting reelected, I sometimes wonder if we understand the process they have to go through to fulfill the duties of their jobs. In most cases, the politicians I know, as individuals, are pretty decent fellows. 

   With George Mickelson, I can attest that he was overtly motivated to serve his state to the best of his ability. Granted, South Dakota is a small state, but any citizen could drop by the governor’s office unannounced in Pierre and call on him.

   I got to know Gov. Mickelson through a friend at Coca-Cola. He had learned that Mickelson, his friend since high school, was coming to Augusta for the Masters and wanted someone to host him during the playing of the championship. It was easy to volunteer for the assignment.  I arranged dinner for Mickelson and his friends at a private club and a warm friendship ensued. 

   When he returned to the Masters a year later, I discovered he was staying at a budget motel. When I told him we could find him more upscale accommodations, he replied. “That is not important. We are here for the golf. All we need is a place to sleep and take a shower.” 

   One fall following a day of pheasant hunting hosted by the governor, we showed up at a local restaurant for dinner. There was a long waiting list, but when the proprietor recognized the governor, he began making arrangements for immediate seating. The governor refused to be given priority over all those waiting in line.

   I recall the last day with him in November before the fatal crash in April. I went by his office in late afternoon to visit with him about his next trip to see the Masters. A light snow began to fall. This robust, handsome man with a big smile walked over to the window overlooking the capitol lake and said generously, “I love a good snow.”  

   One day after a successful hunt, his wife took a group of us to a heritage museum after hours. She hosted an informative tour, which included artifacts related to the Native American influence and the mission of the explorers Lewis and Clark. We had hunted pheasant one day down by the Missouri River, an outing which had heightened our South Dakota experience.

   After the tour, we returned to the mansion, and sitting there with a big smile on his face was Governor Mickelson and his friend Homer Harding. While we were at the museum, the governor and his friend had cleaned our pheasant to take home with us the next day.

   Canada geese were everywhere here recently as I looked out into the distance and thought of George S. Mickelson. I still mourn his passing, but more than that, I mourn what might have been.

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