Bill Muller was a ball of nerves. On a nearly three-hour car ride during the 2008 campaigning season, Muller found himself one-on-one with the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee and former Sen. George McGovern.
“I was so nervous about getting into a car crash with Senator McGovern next to me that he talked and I listened for most of the way,” Muller, a second-year graduate student at the University of South Dakota, said. “And at the age of 86, he was one of the most passionate and impressive people I have ever met. In that short time, he taught me to never be afraid of what I believe in.”
While Muller’s memory of McGovern lives on, the former senator died Oct. 21 at the age of 90, his family released in a statement.
Admitted into hospice care Oct. 15 in Sioux Falls, within two days, his family said the former senator was “no longer responsive” and “nearing the end.”
In a statement made Sunday, Steve Hildebrand, a spokesman for the family, said: “‘At approximately 5:15 a.m. CT [6: 15 a.m. ET] this morning, our wonderful father, George McGovern, passed away peacefully at the Dougherty Hospice House in Sioux Falls, S.D., surrounded by our family and life-long friends.
“We are blessed to know that our father lived a long, successful and productive life advocating for the hungry, being a progressive voice for millions and fighting for peace,” Hildebrand said. “He continued giving speeches, writing and advising all the way up to and past his 90th birthday, which he celebrated this summer.”
Awakening South Dakota’s Democratic Party
Growing up in his hometown of Mitchell, S.D., McGovern graduated from Dakota Wesleyan University, but his ties to USD are evident in his attendance of numerous sporting events and university ceremonies. He received an honorary doctorate of public service degree from the university in 2008, and has left an impression on students, staff and faculty on the USD campus.
Donald Dahlin began his work as a political science professor for USD in 1966, and said he witnessed how McGovern built South Dakota’s Democratic party through grassroots politics in a job where his salary came almost entirely through fundraising efforts.
“Senator McGovern awoke South Dakota’s Democratic party, and inspired students, and voters, through his idealism and optimism,” Dahlin said.
Dahlin said in the times he was able to meet and listen to McGovern on campus, he was struck by the soft-spoken demeanor of the man that turned the Democratic party on its head.
“He was a very approachable politician, especially with students, and I think people admired the fact that he came back to South Dakota and has stayed active campaigning here,” Dahlin said.
1972 Presidential Defeat
USD alumni also hold McGovern and his career in high regard. Al Neuharth, founder of USA Today, the Freedom Forum and Newseum, said in a statement that even with his landslide defeat by incumbent president Richard Nixon in 1972, McGovern was always the better man for the job.
“George McGovern was clearly one of South Dakota’s most outstanding public servants.” Neuharth said in a statement. “The USA and the world would have been better off if he had defeated Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election.”
The world will never know the influence of a McGovern presidency, but the legacy he left with South Dakota politicians is the importance of “traveling from town-to-town and showing people how hard you’re willing to work in a campaign in order to show them how hard you are willing to work in office,” said Matt Varilek, the Democratic candidate for the state’s at-large position in the U.S House of Representatives.
Varilek, who was on campus Oct. 18 for a Dakota Public Broadcasting debate with opponent Rep. Kristi Noem, R-SD, said he was very honored to earn McGovern’s endorsement in his 2012 campaign and is trying to put his advice to work.
“His legacy is enormous in terms of inspiring people to get involved in politics, and inspiring them to do so for the sake of making the world a better place for others,” Varilek, a Yankton native, said. “He was involved in this not for personal gain, but because he thought it was the right thing to do, and I take that inspiration with me.”
Sen. John Thune, R-SD, said in a statement that “McGovern lived a life of exemplary service and his legacy of service will live on.”
The former senator’s death has also triggered mourning nationwide, with statements released Oct. 21 by President Barack Obama, Gov. Mitt Romney and President Bill Clinton labeling McGovern as an “unwavering standing bearer of his party,” “a tireless advocate for human rights” and “a champion for peace,” respectively.
After the Senate
Spending the day with McGovern barely a month ago to support his grandson Matt McGovern’s campaign for South Dakota’s Public Utilities Commission, senior Eric Gage said what struck a chord between them was their shared background as veterans and history buffs. McGovern served as a B-24 pilot during WWII, and survived the 35 required missions needed to end his combat tour and was discharged soon after.
In the day he spent with McGovern, one topic that came up frequently was his late wife Eleanor, Gage said. The two were married for more than 63 years and raised five children: Ann, Susan, Teresa, Steven and Mary. Eleanor McGovern was known as an active political wife and jointly campaigned with her husband on social issues like world hunger. Gage said by the way the senator described his wife, Eleanor McGovern was a true partner.
After a few hours talking about life, politics and South Dakota, Gage said what surprised him most about McGovern was his motto that there is always room for improvement, even at the age of 90. McGovern had delivered a speech earlier in the day for his grandson’s campaign and went over his speech afterward with Gage to discuss his tone and delivery.
“The senator was humble enough to want to get better, even after years of delivering speeches in front of massive audiences,” Gage said. “Not only did he want to continue to improve, but he wanted to continue his service and he had even mentioned writing some more books. He did not want to slow down.”
When Jack Marsh, president of the Al Neuharth Media Center at USD and the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute, voted in his first presidential election, McGovern was on the ballot. Since then, and his growing association with Al Neuharth through the Freedom Forum, Marsh said McGovern had been a great mentor and close friend for the past 15 years.
In the late 1960s and early 70s, Marsh said McGovern was a voice of reason and integrity in America as war was being waged in Vietnam. The senator was one of the few public figures to say “enough was enough,” Marsh added.
“(McGovern) was painted by some as a left wing pacifist for his opposition to Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, but his convictions came from witnessing the horrors of war as a B-24 pilot,” Marsh said. “He was a war hero, who as a young man brought his bomber crew through 35 missions. He persevered, as many WWII veterans did to survive combat situations, and he used this to overcome challenges he later experienced in his personal and professional life.”
And the senator’s work never ceased to end, even after he left office, Marsh said. McGovern worked extensively to end world hunger through the George McGovern — Robert Dole International Food for Education and Nutrition Program, which provided more than 22 million meals to children in 41 countries, according to the program’s website. Former Sen. Dole, a Republican who also fell short in the 1996 presidential campaign, released a statement that said, “Sen. George McGovern lived his life by serving others.”
The ex-senator and his wife also combated alcoholism and its connection to depression, a disease two of their children fought and died over. They created the Teresa McGovern Center in Madison, Wis., an in-patient center for alcohol addiction.
Marsh said the former senator loved to go out, and had recently attended the USD football game against Northwestern University in Illinois with President James Abbott, Marsh and both of their wives. McGovern received his master’s and doctorate degrees from Northwestern and they spent much of the day observing the campus and visiting buildings he remembered from his days at the
McGovern was constantly thinking about what he wanted to do next, Marsh said. Only a week prior to his death, he had talked to Marsh about writing an op-ed for some of the nation’s more prominent newspapers about the current election season, and had discussed writing more books in the near future.
“At 90 years old, (McGovern) was fully engaged and leading an incredible life,” Marsh said. “He loved going to football games and restaurants. He had an amazing sense of humor and was just a great person to be around.”
Marsh sat next to McGovern in his hospice bed last week and held his hand while saying a final goodbye. He said his love and respect for the former South Dakota senator is shared among others from both sides of the aisle through McGovern’s legacy as a champion of decency, a champion of peace and civility and a compassionate human being.
“There are some people we wish could stay with us at least a while longer. Their presence is reassuring. George McGovern is one of those people,” Marsh said in a statement after McGovern’s death. “We miss him dearly but will never forget the high principles he upheld and the great lessons he taught us.”
Memorial services for McGovern will begin Oct. 25. An open viewing will be available to the public from 1-6 p.m. at First United Methodist in downtown Sioux Falls. A prayer service will follow at 6:30 p.m.
McGovern’s funeral will begin at 1 p.m. Oct. 26 inside the Mary Sommervold Hall at the Washington Pavillion.