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Arts & Life

Woster: Grounded in faith, Rounds seeks Christmas spirit after life-altering loss

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Senator Rounds Office

The attached audio is from SDPB's daily public-affairs show, In the Moment.

This is a hard holiday season for Mike Rounds, without the love of his life.

Jean Rounds died Nov. 2 at the home along the Missouri River in Fort Pierre that she shared with her husband, a former state senator, governor and now a second-term U.S. senator. They had been married 43 years, sharing four children and 10 grandchildren.

Mike Rounds met and fell in love with Jean Renae Vedvei, a Lake Preston farm girl, at South Dakota State University. They were married after college in 1978 and moved to Pierre, Mike Rounds’ hometown, where they lived until moving into a new home built just across the Missouri River in Fort Pierre in 2010.

Jean Rounds had battled cancer for the last few years, showing courage, strength, and grace in the face of a persistent disease that punished her body but, her husband says, never diminished her spirit or her faith.

“As Jean often said, ‘If you have faith, you have hope,’” Rounds said in a phone interview Tuesday from his office in Washington, D.C.

Jean and Mike Rounds had hope up until the final week or so of her life. She had responded well to previous cancer treatments through the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and they were hopeful she would respond well again. But this time it wasn’t to be.

“They said you’ve got a couple of weeks. Go home and spend time with the family,” Rounds said. “She made it five days. She was in a lot of pain. It was tough. But we kept her at home and controlled the pain as well as we could.”

And then Jean Rounds was gone. And her husband was faced with moving on without her.

Now he takes his faith and even hopes for some joy into the Christmas season without the woman who was the center of his life and also the bright light of annual family celebrations.

Mike Rounds has already had some practice with the tough stuff, working his way through his first Thanksgiving without Jean, just a few weeks after her death. Despite the depth of his loss, he chose to be thankful for family and friends and other gifts — and for the years he had with Jean.

He expects Christmas to be the same profound mix of feelings.

“We wanted to keep some things the same,” Rounds said. “We built that house to have family over. So the house is decorated. And I’ve told the whole family that we’re having Christmas at our house.

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“The neat part about it is my daughter and her cousins came over on Friday. They started on the house, stayed over Friday, and had a girls’ night, put up all of Jean’s decorations — all homemade, by her, literally hundreds of decorations, everywhere in the house. It took four of them a day and a half.”

It also showed how much planning and how much work Jean Rounds put into the celebration — planning and work now carried on by other members of the family.

So the house is ready for Christmas. And the senator is getting there, too. One day at a time, not hiding from the grief but not letting it control his daily life, either.

At Thanksgiving, Rounds released a statement talking about the loss but also all the gratitude he felt for the support and prayers. He also admitted the holidays would be tough.

“This is my first holiday alone,” he said in that statement. “And while family will be there, I’m still alone. No amount of people can replace Jean’s presence. For 43 years, we shared everything together. In marriage, we became one. She was my soulmate, my rock, and her void is impossible to fill.”

So he doesn’t try. He allows himself to feel the loss and the pain. And he thought it was important to share that with the people of South Dakota and beyond who showed — in prayers and cards and personal contacts — during the last few years how much they cared.

“We really wanted to share how much it hurt. But at the same time, we can’t let that get in the way of what our faith tells us, and that is that she’s in a better place,” Round said. “And I believe she is. So the reason for the grief is that we miss her. Now we’ve got to take that next step like she’d want us to do. You go through the grief because you have to. But at some point, you have to start heading forward.”

His four children and 10 grandchildren help with that, of course, along with in-laws and cousins, and friends. And his work helps, too. It’s important work, after all. Round serves on five Senate committees: Armed Services, Foreign Relations, Veterans Affairs, Indian Affairs, and Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs.

He is ranking member — which means chairman when the Republicans control the Senate — of the Cybersecurity Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee. That subcommittee has a particularly pertinent role in these days of cyber attacks that can threaten the security of a nation and its infrastructure and power grid.

“Of course, I’m very active on the cyber side of things,” Rounds said. “We’re right in the middle of so many important things.”

He’s also in the middle of African issues, as ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health Policy. Rounds has been to Africa on trips led by Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, former chairman of Armed Services, to affirm the need for continued military cooperation there.

And, of course, there are the broader issues faced by the African nations, which his work with the Foreign Affairs Committee and subcommittee tackle.

“Somebody’s got to pay attention to those folks,” Rounds said of the often-forgotten African nations. “There’s big stuff going on in Ethiopia. And we’ve got a big Ethiopian population in Sioux Falls that really cares about what’s going on back there.”

Then there are the ag issues that never go away. Lately, depressed beef prices have been a top-tier concern.

“We’ve got farmers and ranchers out there who can’t make a living and then we’ve got terrible prices at the grocery stores,” Rounds said. “And the packers are taking advantage of it. It’s not right.”

All told, it can make for a pretty busy day, a day that can require a person’s focus and eat up the hours. But the grief is never far beneath the surface. And it often rises, especially when the busy day is finished.

“You can’t pretend it’s not there,” Rounds said.

Or as he said in his Thanksgiving statement: ‘Hardly an hour goes by where I don’t think about Jean. She’s my first thought in the morning and the last before I go to bed. She was everything to me and is constantly on my mind”

That’s true, perhaps more than any other time, as he looks forward to Christmas with both deep sadness and pain but also with the joy of a season that he still feels, at least a little bit. This will be a difficult Christmas, maybe the most difficult of his life. But with plenty of family around and a strong faith life, the senator says he will do his very best to celebrate the season fully, just as his wife would want and expect.

“I’ve got the whole family coming over. We’re having Christmas at our house,” Rounds said. “We want to keep some things the same.”

While learning to live with a loss that will linger for the rest of his life.