Alumnus Dennis Daugaard is in his final term as governor of South Dakota.
Daugaard grew up on a farm between Garretson and Dell Rapids, SD. Daugaard said he went to a small, one-room country school for elementary school before going to high school in Dell Rapids. He decided to come to USD after some persuasion from his sister.
“I have an older sister, Joyce, two years older than I, and she attended USD and when I was trying to decide, she encouraged me to come to USD,” Daugaard said. “I went down to visit her and she arranged a meeting with Dr. (Doc) Farber, who at that time, was the chair of the government department, which they call the political science department now. He offered me some scholarship support and between that and Joyce’s encouragement, I ended up enrolling in USD.”
The governor said politics and USD weren’t his original plans after high school.
“I had thought about engineering, I had a scholarship at SDSU in engineering, but Joyce was really encouraging me to go to USD,” he said.
During his time at USD, Daugaard was a member of the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, president of the political science league and was involved with Strollers. He was also a part of the program council, which is the equivalent to today’s Campus Activities Board (CAB).
“I really enjoyed my time at Lambda Chi Alpha, I made lots of great friends there,” Daugaard said. “Strollers was always a lot of fun. I enjoyed that immensely, both as a cast member and being a member of Strollers.”
Daugaard said that the USD campus is bigger now than it was when he was a student.
“When I went to USD, the football field was where the law school is, the basketball arena was where the Neuharth Center is and highway 50 was much narrower,” he said. “(The campus) has developed north quite a bit with the DakotaDome and the Wellness Center, the Sanford athletic building, the fine arts building, Coyote Village — all those things are new there.”
Daugaard said President James Abbott has been great for USD.
“He’s done so much to attract financial support from the alumni,” he said. “To the university, he’s been such a steady and visionary leader. I really am impressed with what he’s done for USD.”
Daugaard said Farber had a lot to do with his start in politics.
“As I was nearing graduation, Dr. Farber encouraged me to apply to Northwestern Law School,” Daugaard said. “I don’t think I would’ve ever thought to apply there, but I did and got in. I ended up moving to Chicago and going to law school there. I think the law degree helped me when I was encouraged to run for the legislature. It helped me understand the process and the statues a little bit better than I would’ve otherwise.”
Dusty Johnson, Daugaard’s former chief of staff, said the governor only has positive thoughts towards his alma mater.
“He clearly had great experiences on campus that helped make him who he is today,” Johnson said. “He has a lot of Coyote pride.”
A political path
Daugaard graduated from USD in 1975. After that, he went to law school, took his bar exam and stayed in Chicago for three years to work.
“I really enjoyed the cultural aspects of Chicago, but it was very impersonal, very crowded, couldn’t see the stars at night, very noisy and I missed the country,” he said.
During his time in Chicago, Daugaard said he reconnected with his high school girlfriend, Linda Schmidt, and they decided to quit their jobs, move back to South Dakota, get married and “start fresh.” The couple moved back to the farm Daugaard grew up on and raised their three children: Laura, Sara and Chris.
Mitch Rave, a senior political sciences major, said the fact that Daugaard came from a normal, hard-working family inspires him.
“He’s just basically rooted in South Dakota core values of trying to help everyone, help your neighbor, be a good citizen and things like that,” Rave said. “Hard work will get you anywhere, really.”
Rave interned in Pierre this summer and said he sometimes got the opportunity to work with Daugaard by assisting him on certain projects and events.
“He loves South Dakota, he always wants to make things better,” Rave said. “He’s not okay with just sitting in static. He wants to improve on basically anything, if he sees a problem, he wants to look for a solution.”
After returning to South Dakota, Daugaard worked in banking and later began working at the Children’s Home Society. In 1996, he ran for legislature and was elected as a senator.
“It was very interesting,” he said. “The legislature in South Dakota meets from early January to mid-March, so it’s drive out on Sunday night to Pierre, move into a motel room, have committee meetings every morning and have session every afternoon.”
In 2002, former governor Mike Rounds asked Daugaard to be his running mate, so when Rounds was elected, Daugaard became his lieutenant governor.
The Rounds/Daugaard administration was re-elected in 2006. After that, Daugaard decided to run for governor in 2009.
“In theory, when you’re lieutenant governor, your job is to be ready to be governor, so I’d been preparing myself a little bit for eight years,” Daugaard said. “As lieutenant governor, people see you as credible as a candidate.”
Daugaard was elected as South Dakota’s 32nd governor in 2010.
The final term
Daugaard said the role as governor can be challenging because it’s so varied.
“Sometimes it’s a little bit exhausting, but I’ve enjoyed it and it’s a great privilege,” Daugaard said. “Now I’m just a little over a year away from the end of my second term, I’ll be term limited. I’ve enjoyed it very much. It’s been a wonderful privilege for which I am very grateful.”
Johnson said he believes Daugaard is hardworking and honest.
“He really leads by example,” Johnson said. “He was often the first governor’s office staffer at the capitol in the morning. He would always do his homework. He was very diligent about getting his work done. I think set a good example for the rest of the staff when somebody works hard and plays by the rules”
Johnson worked for the governor for four years, but has known him for 15 years.
“We have this thought in our minds that someone in politics are in it for themselves, that’s certainly not the case for Governor Daugaard,” Johnson said. “He is incredibly selfless, he really focuses on others, he really believes in the calling of making an impact doing the right thing.”
After his term ends, Daugaard said he and the first lady will move back to the farm.
“The whole state is wide open to the governor, all doors open to the governor, so you really get to see a lot of the state behind the scenes,” he said. “It’s really interesting and I’ll miss that.”
Daugaard said his advice for current students is to set themselves apart from the crowd.
“You can do that by getting internships, work experiences… so you set yourself apart from the mass of folks who have that same degree and who are competing for those few jobs that are out there in that field,” he said.
The governor said he’s looking forward to coming back to campus for Dakota Days this year.
“I’ll go to the parade and after the parade I’ll go over to the Lambda Chi house to see some of my old friends,” Daugaard said. “We maintain those friendships yet today.”