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From an impromptu knee exam to that magical first reply from a U.S. senator, remembering Billion and Abourezk

Jim Abourezk
Charlie Abourezk
Jim Abourezk

He was pretty good with knees, too, even on the floor of the South Dakota House

It was a bit unusual, I suppose, for me to get my knee examined by an orthopedic surgeon on the floor of the South Dakota House of Representatives, while the House was in session.

But I was there anyway, covering the session for the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.

And Jack Billion was there anyway, too, serving as a Democratic member of the House from District 13 in Sioux Falls.

So, what the heck, why not get my ailing knee checked out.

“Just put it up here,” Billion said, after I told him about shooting pains from my knee down into my foot. “Let me have a look.”

I shrugged, rolled up my right pant leg into a thin donut of fabric just above my knee and hoisted my leg up onto a wooden chair on the House floor, not far from the press box.

Billion leaned over and had a look, and a feel. Then he felt some more. Then he stood up and shrugged.

Cara Hetland

“Yeah, you’ve got a lesion there that’s probably pushing on the nerve. That’s what’s causing your pain,” he said. “It’s probably a cyst or a lipoma. It moves around easily. It’s not engaged. So I don’t think it’s something you have to worry much about. But because of where it’s located, you’ll probably have to get it removed.”

Some years later, I got it removed. The growth was a benign tumor that was pressing on the nerve, causing an electrifying pain to shoot down my leg with even the slightest bump. It was also causing sharp pain in my toes and foot when my leg was in certain positions and sometimes numbness and tingling.

Eventually I went in for the surgery Billion predicted that afternoon on the House floor. By the time I got that surgery, he was out of the state Legislature and retired from his orthopedic surgery practice.

Billion had served two terms in the House in the ‘90s before losing a close race for the state Senate seat in his district. He decided that was enough of the Legislature, but not enough of politics. Billion ran for governor as the Democratic nominee in 2006, with Rapid City writer/historian Eric Abrahamson of Rapid City as his running mate.

They would have been a very competitive ticket if there were any balance at all between Republican and Democratic voters in South Dakota. As it was, Mike Rounds and running mate Dennis Daugaard won a second term quite easily.

I covered that campaign for the Rapid City Journal. And at least one campaign event, I recounted the time Billion had examined my knee on the House floor.

“The guy was so good he could multi-task, handling his legislative business and his doctor business at the same time,” I said.

I didn’t consider that as an endorsement of Billion’s candidacy, more of an endorsement of the small-state style we knew in the Legislature, and of Billion’s good nature. It’s not in every state Legislature where you can get a quick knee exam on the floor of the House of Representatives, from a working House member who also happens to be a working surgeon.

Another sad passing of a politician known and covered

And despite a wide win margin for Rounds, Billion brought up some important issues and provided South Dakotans with a credible alternative to the heavily favored Republican. He deserved our gratitude for that, and for his service in the South Dakota House.

He also deserved my personal gratitude for that free, impromptu knee exam on the House floor, and for the wicked sense of humor he brought to the state Capitol and that governor’s race.

I thought of all that Sunday night after Mary looked up from her cell phone as she sat on the living-room love seat and said “Did you know Jack Billion died?”

I didn’t know. And I was saddened by the news.

I’m saddened by news like that with increasing frequency. I’m 71, after all, and sadly note the passing of people in my age category — some slightly younger, or somewhat older — at an accelerating pace.

My four siblings, all of whom are older than I am, and I share news of relatives or friends or acquaintances from back home who have died. My lifelong pals Larry and Clem do the same thing. And with all the good news on Facebook, it often also includes word of someone’s passing.

In terms of politics, it seems like scarcely a week goes by without an email announcement from the governor’s office that another former state lawmaker has died, and that flags will be flown at half staff in his or her honor.

Most recently there was the news of Billion’s death at 83. That was just two days after we learned that former U.S. Sen. Jim Abourezk had died Friday on his 92nd birthday.

A couple of days prior to that, my South Dakota Public Broadcasting colleague Lori Walsh had asked me if I had any personal stories about Abourezk. The former senator was in hospice care in Sioux Falls and SDPB, like other news platforms, was preparing for his eventual passing.

I told Lori that I didn’t really have many stories about Abourezk. He served just a single term in the U.S. House and a single Senate term in the ‘70s, so he was out office by January of 1979, which is about the time I really started covering South Dakota politics as part of a broader assignment sheet.

I do remember that while I was in college at SDSU I sent letters to Abourezk at his Senate office in D.C. on issues such as environmental protection and the Vietnam War. And I remember always receiving prompt responses, with what appeared to his hand-written signature and often a short personal note.

The first time I got one I opened it in my little basement apartment close to the SDSU campus, saw the note and signature and felt a sense of amazement: “Wow. A U.S. senator, writing me back!”

It might have been the family connection, but I doubt it

My brother, Terry, was already an established newsman who had covered or would cover big issues like the Rapid City Flood of 1972, the takeover at Wounded Knee in 1973, the murder of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge reservation in 1975 and the ’76 Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden in New York City. So Abourezk knew him well.

Terry also covered Abourezk in his run for the U.S. House in 1970 and for the U.S. Senate two years later.

I suppose that could be why I got those personal notes. But I don’t think so. Not totally. I think Abourezk wrote a lot of those personal notes, to a lot of people. Years later, Tom Daschle said one of the important things he learned from Abourezk was to make responses to constituents as personal as possible as often as possible.

While I didn’t cover Abourezk much when he was in office, I did get to know him a bit after that. He was a smart, opinionated, witty guy who didn’t hesitate to speak his truths, to people in power or anyone one else. I did cover some of the statewide tour that Abourezk and former Democratic U.S. Sen. George McGovern did on behalf of Scott Heidepriem when the Sioux Falls lawyer was running for governor in 2010.

They were quite a pair: McGovern, as quietly articulate and gently assertive as ever, and Abourezk, always the fire-breathing dragon of political rhetoric, yet both obviously respecting the other’s style and statements.

And both left their marks on South Dakota and on Washington, D.C. Abourezk was in particular known for his work as chairman for the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, pushing for racial justice and respect for sovereignty for indigenous people. He paired with McGovern to form a most unlikely — and historically aberrant —duet of liberalism representing a generally conservative state.

It was short lived. The state’s leftward swing during the ‘70s soon began a swing back to the right by the end of the decade, a trend that led to what became and is near-total dominance in South Dakota by the Republican Party.

But in 1977, McGovern and Abourezk were still big-time political players on the state, national and even international stage. They engineered an international basketball exchange that would be unthinkable today. Both had been to Cuba and they returned leading a South Dakota basketball delegation with men’s players and coaches from SDSU and USD to play an all-star Cuban team that included Olympians.

The Cubans were generally older and stronger and more experienced, and they handled our guys pretty convincingly.

After that, Cuba brought a team to the United States for a tour that included SDSU and USD, as well as bigger schools with better-known basketball programs. I got to shoot the game at Frost Arena at SDSU. And it was a blast.

Somewhere in a box in the basement, I might have a black-and-white negative or two of that game. The images certainly life in my recollection.

McGovern and Abourezk agreed on most key political issues but differed sharply on some things, maybe most notably the controversial Oahe Irrigation Project. McGovern was among those who championed the proposed project, which would have brought wide-spread irrigation to parts of north-central and northeast South Dakota with Missouri River water. Abourezk opposed the project. Or maybe despised it would be more accurate.

Republican upstart Larry Pressler also opposed the Oahe Project, a smart political move and one that seemed genuinely felt. That helped Pressler defeat project supporter and two-term incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Frank Denholm in 1974 and boosted Pressler’s successful run for the Senate seat left by the retiring Abourezk in 1978.

Losing influential leaders who were also extraordinary men

Meanwhile, the Oahe Project was falling under the weight of its own cost and questionable design, potential environmental impacts and the smartly organized and passionate opposition from landowners, particularly those in the grassroots group United Family Farmers. Congress discontinued funding for the project in 1977, which was the beginning of the end of the ambitious plan.

Out of all that, however, emerged the Walworth-Edmunds-Brown (WEB) domestic water pipeline, which pumped Missouri River water to towns and farms across northeast South Dakota.

Both McGovern and Abourezk were out of office — Abourezk by retiring in 1979 and McGovern after losing to Republican Jim Abdnor in 1980 — when WEB water started flowing.

McGovern and Abourezk remained active in political and civic affairs, continuing with writing and speaking engagements. McGovern died in October of 2012. He was 90.

With McGovern gone and Abourezk now joining him, South Dakota has lost two influential leaders who were also extraordinary men.

Pressler served three Senate terms before losing to Democrat Tim Johnson in 1996. After that Pressler embarked on a productive post-Senate life that included lecturing and adjunct professor work, writing and speaking. He also made an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate from South Dakota as an independent in 2014.

In 2019, Pressler was treated for bladder cancer, which went into remission. But a year or so later, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and has been treated at Johns Hopkins cancer center in Baltimore, Md.

Pressler seems to be holding up well against one of the most difficult forms of cancer to defeat. He still hopes to get back to South Dakota sometime soon. And a few weeks ago, he sent me a Facebook message saying he looked forward to such a trip and the chance for us to share a meal and talk South Dakota politics.

If we do, Abourezk and Jack Billion will likely be among the politicians we’ll discuss.

My brother Terry wrote his column this week for the Mitchell Daily Republic on Abourezk, calling him a “happy, gently sarcastic warrior” in a take-off on the “Happy Warrior” of politics description given to Hubert Humphrey.

Terry also added about Abourezk: “Sometimes his sarcasm was not gentle. He did not suffer fools gladly or quietly. On the other hand, he accepted and reached out to those society had blessed with neither position nor privilege.”

Which is about as meaningful a compliment as any politician, or person, could receive.

Both Abourezk and Billion were blessed with a sharp-edged sense of humor, as well as the commitment my brother mentioned to those without position or privilege.

Eric Abrahamson noted Billon’s passing with a personal message on Facebook that read: “Running with Jack Billion in 2006 was an honor and an adventure. But savoring his friendship over the last 17 years was far more important. He had an enormous heart for the world that even his sarcasm couldn’t hide. I will miss him”

So will Rick Hauffe, who got to know Jack well while working as executive director and political strategist for the South Dakota Democratic Party. It was the friendship beyond all that political work, however, that Hauffe will remember and treasure the most.

“If you were a friend of Jack Billion’s, you really had something great,” Hauffe said. “And to my dying day, I’ll feel that honor, of being a good friend of Jack’s. But then, he always made everybody feel like he was their good friend.”

He was pretty good with knees, too, even on the floor of the South Dakota House.

Kevin Woster has reached the age where he ought to know better. He married for a former reporter, Mary Garrigan and between them have six kids and 15 grandkids. Kevin grew up on a farm northeast of Reliance, where his respect for farmers and ranchers and love for hunting and fishing were born and fed. Kevin wrote his first newspaper story for the Chamberlain Register in 1973 and touched off a career in journalism that took him to the Brookings Register, Sioux Falls Argus Leader and KELO TV, as well as freelancing for outdoors and ag magazines. He’s covered agriculture, national and state politics, natural resources and the outdoors and worked 15 or 16 legislative sessions — including stints for both Journal and the Argus as capital bureau reporter. Kevin began blogging in 2004, beginning with Bill Harlan and Denise Ross on Mount Blogmore at the Rapid City Journal.