Today marks the 20th anniversary of the plane crash that killed Governor George S. Mickelson and seven others. On April 19th, 1993, a twin propeller airplane crashed into an Iowa farmyard–killing all eight people on board. On Today’s Dakota Digest SDPB’s Charles Michael Ray has more on how even 20 years later Mickelson's legacy continues.
There are certain points in life where a tragic news event is solidified in memory. The crash that killed Governor George Mickelson and seven others was one of those times for Frank Brost. He served as Governor Mickelson’s Chief of Staff.
“I was the person that took the phone call from the federal aviation people informing us of the crash and of the death of all people on board,” says Brost. “It was the toughest day of my life,” he adds.
Brost had to inform each of the families of those who died in the crash. Those on board included, Pilots David Hansen and Ron Becker, along with David Birkeland the President of First Bank of South Dakota, Angus Anson a Northern States Power executive. Roger Hainje the Sioux Falls Economic Development Foundation Director, Roland Dolly the State Economic Development Commissioner, and Ron Reed State Energy Policy Director. The group were key players in the state’s economic development effort. The plane was on its way back from a meeting with executives at the Smithfield Foods the parent company for John Morrell. Twenty years after the crash Frank Brost reflects on the legacy Mickelson left behind.
“I believe that the basis of all his objectives and his vision was based on education. Whether it be primarily the economic development stuff, but the reason for that was to generate a weather state that could fund adequately higher education as well as K-12 Education, “ says Brost.
Others like Janelle Toman agree that education underpinned Mickelson’s focus on economic development. Toman served as the governor’s Press Secretary during part of his second term. In the hours that followed the plane crash she says there was a huge outpouring of support.
“The thing I recall vividly is how immediately people showed up to help. I mean we immediately had folks show up from other state agencies from the community and calls from across the state saying we want to help what can we do to assist,” says Toman.
Toman says it’s gratifying to see that many of the initiatives started by Governor Mickelson still exist today.
“Things like the future fund, the state level Department of Tourism, the South Dakota Community Foundation, the EPSCOR program. He was critical that South Dakota did not have a lot of investment in competitive research especially at the higher education level. So many of his visionary Ideas ether have bore fruit or are still bearing fruit yet today,” says Toman.
The longevity of the programs started by Governor Mickelson isn’t a surprise to some of those who knew him well. Roger Tellinghuisen was the Attorney General during the Mickelson Administration. He says the governor brought great enthusiasm to the office.
“The tremendous passion that he had, that you could feel and sense when you had an opportunity to sit with him and just talk to him about what his vision was for South Dakota. I mean he really, really loved this state. His ambitions were all focused towards improving the quality of life in this state and he was just a special person in my opinion,” says Tellinghuisen.
Mickelson wasn’t completely partisan about who he would share his vision with. Robert Duxbury was the Democratic Minority leader of the South Dakota House during Mickelson's term. He says the Republican governor was always willing to communicate across the aisle.
“It’s a tough job. But he was just an outstanding person who tried to work with everybody. You had some disagreements but he would always sit down and talk about them. And, I certainly appreciate that and I had a lot of good memories with him, says Duxbury.
Mickelson is also recognized by many for taking a first step toward racial reconciliation. His “Year of Reconciliation,” initiated in 1990, is seen by many as a first step toward better dialogue between natives and non-natives in the state. Michael Jandreau is the Chair of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. He was among those tribal leaders who built a relationship with Mickelson. He says the plane crash that killed the Governor also stymied race relations.
“It was a real blow to I believe the relationship and a set back to the relationship he was trying to move forward between the tribes and the state government,” says Jandreau.
Jandreau says while positive strides have been made, 20 years later the work toward reconciliation is far from over. He says many challenges remain. Those who knew George Mickelson say he approached these sort of challenges with an unfaltering optimism – believing the people of South Dakota could overcome all obstacles. Janelle Toman, who worked as his press secretary, cites the words of Governor Mickelson from a 1991 speech.
“And, the quote says: ‘South Dakota is beyond the crossroads. We’ve charted the course. We know where we’re headed—I now know more than ever we will get there.’ So that’s another example of that optimism and sense of confidence,” says Toman reading a quote from the late governor George Mickelson.
The Administration of George S. Mickelson is now part of South Dakota history. Many of those who knew the late governor say the course he set 20 years ago remains true. They add that the optimism and confidence Mickelson placed in all the people of South Dakota is still every bit as valuable today as it was on that April day in 1993.