The Seiler story: Leaving a legacy of decency
I should have gone.
That was my first clear thought when I awoke shortly before 7 a.m. Tuesday morning to the gentle, familiar tune coming from my cell-phone alarm.
A second thought followed the first, reminding me that I had to drive across town to pick up a grandson and take him to Rapid City Central High School, as I do most school mornings.
But before I rolled out of bed and focused on that, I lay under the covers for a while and felt regret that I hadn’t risen a couple of hours earlier, donned a haphazard-but-passable mix of clothing and headed for Pierre to attend Randy Seiler’s funeral mass.
Seiler was just 76 when he died last week, although “just” might be the editorial perspective of someone in a certain age group, such as the one that includes me and my 71 birthdays.
Still, Seiler seemed strong and vibrant and full of future days, all of them packed with potential. His death from a heart attack that hit while he was jogging with his dog up along Oahe Dam north of Pierre was a reminder that each day is precious and should be lived as such.
A champion for my daughter, and many others
The good news about Randy Seiler’s sad passing is that he didn’t waste many days. And his family, friends, colleagues and the state we all share and love are better because of it.
That was quite a bit to consider first thing in the morning, as I drowsily collected my thoughts and put off for another minute or two the rise into grandpa duties.
I had reason to feel regret for not driving out to the mass. I had already missed Seiler’s memorial service the night before in Fort Pierre, where a succession of people praised the chairman of the South Dakota Democratic Party and former U.S. attorney for the intelligence and decency he brought to politics and the law and, well, to life.
Intelligence is great. It really is. But decency? That’s a treasure that rises to another level of human values.
Decency. Give us more of that, please.
I know a bit about the memorial service because my daughter, Meghan, was there, joining others to celebrate the life and lament the loss of the man she worked for in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. She had good reason to be there. Randy Seiler did so much for her as a young lawyer that it’s really hard to quantify.
“He was always such a champion for me,” Meghan had said by text a few days earlier, when she told me Seiler had died.
Multiply my daughter’s experience by the similar experiences of so many other people, especially in the law but in all walks of life, and you get a hint of what Seiler did for his immediate world.
Among those who spoke at the memorial service was state Attorney General Marty Jackley, who, like Seiler, has previously served as the U.S. attorney for South Dakota. Jackley had direct work experience with Seiler when they both worked for the Justice Department. They also faced each other in other court situations where they were opposing lawyers and in one — tribal court — where Seiler was the judge.
When word spread of Seiler’s passing last week, Jackley sent out a statement that read: “Randy Seiler was a brilliant lawyer, a great U.S. Attorney for SD, a strong advocate for victims, a dear friend, and most importantly, an amazing father and husband.”
And there was this as well from Jackley: “Randy became a friend in the late ‘70s when my dad and he were law school classmates. I have been fortunate to try cases with and against him, as well as in front of him as a Tribal Judge always finding him to be fair with integrity. God speed my friend!”
Stopping to think of Randy before speaking
Speaking at the memorial service Monday evening, Jackley also said something that Meghan really liked and shared with me, something about how his friendship with Seiler tempered his political rhetoric.
I liked that idea enough to call Jackley Wednesday morning and ask about it.
“What I was trying to say was that based on my relationship with Randy Seiler, before I would make what was perhaps too political a statement, I reflected on our friendship,” Jackley said. “I reflected on that relationship and it probably affected in a good way my statement.”
Did I mention, by the way, that Jackley is a Republican? Of course, you knew that. Seiler was publicly praised last week by a number of members of the opposing party, including Congressman Dusty Johnson and Sen. Mike Rounds, who was also a good friend and neighbor of Seiler’s along the Missouri River in Fort Pierre.
Rounds attended the memorial, as did many other Republicans.
“There was a room full of Republicans of all walks,” Jackley said. “You had suits and ripped-out jeans, because that’s Randy Seiler.”
Jackley’s comments made me wish, even more, that I’d rearranged my schedule to get to the memorial on Monday, or at least risen early enough Tuesday to get to the 10 a.m. funeral mass in Pierre.
I had three previous commitments on Monday, including one that took me to Sturgis into the early evening. Monday night I was unusually tired. And making the mass would have meant getting up at 5 a.m. to allow for the hour lost in the time change and the drive time to Pierre.
Tired or not, I should have been there
I have to admit, I’m getting to the age where 5 a.m. starts and long days on the road don’t have much appeal.
So I slept in, and immediately felt bad about it when I awoke to the musical alarm at my regular time. My reasons for not going suddenly seemed like unworthy excuses.
Randy Seiler and I were not close friends. Our relationship was mostly professional, but always friendly and full of mutual respect. I liked him, a lot. And I think he liked me.
I interviewed Seiler a couple of times when he was assistant U.S. attorney and then as U.S. attorney. I also interviewed him several times when he took over as chairman of the South Dakota Democratic Party. And I called him a time or two just to chat about politics and the work he was doing later in his career to help tribal governments with their judicial systems.
And then, of course, there was the daughter thing. When someone treats your child well and helps them chart a path in life, that creates a special kind of connection, one that’s based on the father’s end in deep, abiding gratitude.
How many other parents have felt the same way about their kids and how they benefitted from having Seiler in their lives? Too many to easily count, I’d guess.
There was a lot written about Seiler last week, all of it deserved. Yet, I didn’t write anything. I tried a couple of times, but didn’t or couldn’t. Sometimes that happens.
An outdoor lover who fit right in at the hunt
I could have forced it, of course. I forced my writing on deadline for decades. Now that I’m semi-retired and set my own schedule, I don’t force it much. I wait for it to come, if it wants to, when it wants to. Usually it does, eventually.
In this case, I waited. And waited. And it finally came clothed in regret on Tuesday morning, as I lay in bed thinking about what I’d missed. I continued to think of Seiler off and on all day, finally focusing on a day we spent together. A good day. A really good day.
It was Oct. 28, 2018. I know that because Randy accepted my invitation to join us at the annual Requiem to Mount Blogmore Invitational Pheasant Hunt & Charitable Chili Feed at the Nick and Mary Jo Nemec farm near Holabird.
The Nemecs and I began the annual hunt in 2007, inviting people of different political beliefs to come together in the spirit of the outdoors. It was named after the now-defunct political blog that I helped moderate on the Rapid City Journal website for more than a decade.
It’s a good time, that hunt. We chase pheasants, we talk and laugh, we eat some of Mary Jo’s chili and we throw some money in a hat for Nick’s chosen local charity.
We almost always hold the hunt on the last Sunday in October. And in 2018 that was a busy time for Seiler, since he was in the closing 10 days of his campaign for attorney general in South Dakota. The general election that year was on Nov. 6.
Yet, Seiler made time for the hunt. He showed up for the donuts and conversation in the morning and stayed for some of Mary Jo’s chili that night, with a lot of hunting and talking and ribbing and laughing in-between.
It was the usual mix of fairly liberal Democrats and fairly conservative Republicans and people of various shades of red, blue and purple in-between. Randy fit in perfectly, talking politics, talking government, talking families, talking the outdoors.
Of course he was the most qualified candidate, but …
There might have been a time that day when Randy wasn’t smiling. But I didn’t see it. I think he shot a bird or two, but I can’t remember for sure. It didn’t seem to matter much to him whether he shot anything or not. He clearly loved being there, enjoying the outdoors with other South Dakotans who felt the same way.
His grin brightened the hunt.
Then there was the election. If we lived in a state with any political balance at all, Seiler would have won, probably with some ease. His resume as a lawyer and as a prosecutor was long and impressive.
A Vietnam vet and a stellar student at USD Law, Seiler first worked in private practice that included serving as a deputy state’s attorney and special tribal judge. He then went to work for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, where he distinguished himself as a prosecutor who was lead counsel on hundreds of criminal cases, 70 of which involved felony level trials before juries.
He served as first assistant U.S. attorney before he was chosen by Barack Obama as U.S. attorney, working to make the office more responsive to the needs of indigenous people. He retired in December of 2017 and soon began preparing for his run for state attorney general in 2018.
Randy Seiler was probably the most qualified first-time AG candidate in South Dakota history. If he wasn’t the most qualified, he was certainly among them.
And his 2018 Republican opponent Jason Ravnsborg, a lawyer from Yankton, might have been the least-qualified major-party candidates for AG in South Dakota history. He certainly was among them.
But Ravnsborg was a Republican and Seiler was a Democrat. So the Republican won, as usual. It was 55 percent to 45 percent, a pretty decent showing for any Democrat these days in a statewide election.
Some said he could have won had he gotten nasty in his campaign. Maybe. Or maybe a full-scale campaign of attacks would have backfired. Either way, it wasn’t Seiler’s style.
Then on a lonesome highway, tragedy struck
The outcome of the election wasn’t surprising. But it was depressing. And, of course, that was only part of the story. The non-lethal part. It got a lot worse.
Less than two years after he took office, Attorney General Ravnsborg was driving his Ford Taurus on Highway 14 just west of Highmore at about 10:30 p.m. For whatever reason — investigators surmised that it might have been distraction with a cell phone — Ravnsborg allowed his car to drift onto the shoulder, strike and kill 55-year-old Joe Boever, who was walking on the shoulder carrying a lighted flashlight.
Boever was Nick Nemec’s cousin. And the accident occurred just a few miles east of the Nemec farm where we hold our hunt.
The crash that ended Joe Boever’s life marked the beginning of the end of Jason Ravnsborg’s political career, at least in South Dakota. Ravnsborg eventually pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor charges and never served any jail time.
But there were many unanswered questions surrounding the accident. And Ravnsborg’s lack of candor after the crash and his behavior during the investigation eventually led the state Legislature to impeach him and remove him from office. He is also barred from holding public office in South Dakota in the future.
It would have been understandable if Randy Seiler had shown a smug I-told-you-so demeanor after all of that. But I doubt he felt that way. And he certainly never showed it. What he showed was sadness at the loss of a life and compassion for the family of Joe Boever.
Smugness wasn’t Seiler’s style. Compassion was.
He never seemed to dwell on his loss to Ravnsborg. He had things to do, legal work to offer, assistance for people who needed it, including on reservations here in South Dakota. And there was also some politics to handle, for a party in desperate need.
Providing steady leadership, right up to the end
A few months after his loss in the election, Seiler was chosen as the vice-chairman of the South Dakota Democratic Party. And a few months after that, he was chosen chairman of the party. He set about dealing with a burdensome debt, problems with organization and the overwhelming advantage the Republican Party in South Dakota has in registered voters and resources.
He was a steady leader who offered straight answers to reporters and encouraging words to fellow Democrats. Just what any party needs. At the time of his death from a heart attack, Seiler was still serving as party chair but planning his retirement and a lot more time with family.
Seiler and I spoke about his family plans in a phone conversation. He was really looking forward to more grandkid time.
I’m guessing he would have focused on that, but I doubt he would have disappeared from politics. His involvement would have been far too valuable to give up entirely.
Another speaker at the Monday memorial service made that point. John Brockelsby, a member of the family that started and still operates the Reptile Gardens south of Rapid City, served with Seiler on a board of directors of the Badlands National Park Conservancy.
Along with his praise for Seiler, Brockelsby complimented Jackley and Rounds for turning out at the memorial to honor their friend. Brockelsby said such bipartisan relationships should be encouraged to help close the divide between Democrats and Republicans.
Randy Seiler closed divides naturally just by the way he lived. Brockelsby encouraged others to follow.
Imagine how much better the political dialogue could be if we all stopped and thought of Randy Seiler before we spoke or tweeted.
What a legacy that would be.