Remembering Governor Walter Dale Miller

Sep 29, 2015

Flags fly at half-staff out of respect for former South Dakota Governor Walter Dale Miller. He died Monday at the age of 89. Miller was born in October of 1925 in Meade County, South Dakota. He was a longtime school board member and state politician before becoming governor in 1993. 

Walter Dale Miller served in the state’s top office for less than one term, but those who worked with him say South Dakota still feels the impact of his decades of leadership. He was a tall man who some call a cowboy gentleman – always in boots and his hat. 

"He viewed that his job in public service was to make life better for others," University of South Dakota political science professor Mike Card says. "I don’t think he sought the limelight; it sort of found him."

Governor Miller and his wife Mary Randall had four children. He was a leader in the Republican party and a school board member. He also found his way to the Statehouse. Miller served two decades in the South Dakota House of Representatives. No other person has held all of his leadership roles: majority whip, assistant majority leader, speaker pro tem, and speaker of the house.

He signed onto the gubernatorial campaign in 1986 when George S. Mickelson ran for governor and won. Janelle Toman was press secretary for Mickelson and later Miller. She says he had a calm leadership style.

"It was more of in a low-key way, and it was a lot of times what he didn’t say even versus what he did say that made a difference," Toman says. "Certainly George Mickelson recognized that type of leadership when he asked him to become first-time ever, in this state, full-time lieutenant governor."

Toman says Miller loved the give and take of the legislative process and worked to develop consensus.

Walter Dale Miller became the 29th Governor of South Dakota in 1993, but he got the job under devastating circumstances. A plane carrying Governor Mickelson crashed; killing all eight on board. Toman remembers that day.

"I recall his inauguration, if you will, his swearing in. It was really just a swearing in, and that happened in the rotunda of the capitol the day after the accident. Obviously he was governor upon the time that the other governor passed away, but we did have some limited recognition and a short service to make it official," Toman says. 

Miller quietly took the oath and began his leadership. He was 67 – the oldest person to become governor in state history.

Political scientist Mike Card says Miller focused on the effectiveness of government operations and worked at a slow and steady pace.

"It’s not sexy, but it certainly paved the way for savings to come later, for efficiencies to come later – and it was all set in place by Walter Dale Miller’s public service," Card says. 

Despite his short stay in office, Governor Miller tackled problems including a prison riot and video lottery controversy. He also dealt with severe flooding, which started the day before he got married. His first wife died several years earlier, and he married Patricia Caldwell in 1993.

Steve Kirby was lieutenant governor under Miller’s leadership. He says Miller handled many challenges during his tenure including a run for the Republican nomination for the next election. Kirby says future governor Bill Janklow beat Miller in the primary.

"I don't think he sought the limelight; it sort of found him."

"The day after it was like it had happened years before. Walt continued to carry out his duties as governor, no hard feelings immediately, did everything he could to help Bill Janklow become the next governor, so there was no remorse," Kirby says. "Of course, he’s a competitor like all of us. He wanted to win. But once he didn’t, he never give that another thought and went back to being governor."

That time ended less than two years after Miller took office. South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley says Miller was a longtime family friend who knew his priorities.

"One of the biggest things that Walter Dale always did in his guidance is he instilled the importance of family and public service, and certainly he demonstrated that passion for public service serving 20 years in our legislature, as lieutenant governor and as our governor – and really guided South Dakota through a very difficult time of need after the plane crash, led us through the flood of ‘’93, he stopped the prison riot, and did a lot of positive things with education and other important projects in South Dakota," Jackley says.

South Dakota Governor Walter Dale Miller died September 28, 2015. He was 89 years old.