COLUMN: Mickelson left powerful, positive legacy

Farm Forum

It’s hard to believe that it was 20 years ago that South Dakota lost its governor in a tragic plane crash in Iowa.

George Mickelson was in his second term as governor of South Dakota in April 1993, when the plane he and seven others were traveling in crashed near Dubuque, Iowa. All aboard were killed. Although I did not know him personally, my life and the lives of many others are still being impacted by Mickelson’s work and dedication.

In 1993, I was on active duty for the South Dakota National Guard in Brookings. When news broke of his death, as well as the deaths of seven other South Dakotans, many of us were in shock.

We were notified soon after the crash that the governor was to be buried in Brookings with a military-style funeral. I was selected as one member of the four-person honor guard to render military tribute at the governor’s funeral.

Anyone who remembers that day might recall that passersby, farmers in the fields, young and old, all standing silently or at attention along the route as the governor’s funeral motorcade made its way from Pierre to Brookings. All of South Dakota paid its last respects to Mickelson that day.

Even if you did not agree with all of his policies, there is no denying that many of Mickelson’s projects were so worthy that they almost define our state some 20 years later.

For example, the governor’s declaration of 1990 as the “Year of Reconciliation” between American Indians and non-American Indian South Dakotans was one of his most enduring legacies. Since first contact, relations between American Indians and non-Indians have been problematic at best.

Beginning with the westward migrations, expanding railroads, gold discoveries and homesteading, American Indians suffered government policies of assimilation and even cultural genocide. Some still believe that the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee Creek and the 1973 standoff at Wounded Knee between the American Indian movement and federal agents have never been fully atoned.

Mickelson recognized this painful history, as well as the mistrust and ill-will that continued to exist between the races, and addressed the problem head-on. He strongly believed that efforts at reconciliation were critical for the state to move forward.

The other legacy that we can attribute to Mickelson is the success and importance of tourism to South Dakota. It was under his administration that the South Dakota Department of Tourism was established as a cabinet position.

From a purely economic standpoint, tourism has benefitted all of South Dakota. But the Mickelson “Rails-to-Trails” program also converted railroad tracks to hiking and biking trails, benefiting all who simply enjoy the South Dakota outdoors — tourists and residents alike.

It seems like it was just yesterday that we lost Mickelson, but his legacy continues to positively impact all South Dakotans. His was a life well lived, leaving a positive legacy for generations to come.

Alan L. Neville is an associate professor of education at Northern State University. The views are his and do not represent Northern State University.