Remembering Les Jensen

Les Jensen and I in July 2016

Word came this morning that Les Jensen, son of Gov. Leslie Jensen, has passed away. Les, who was 90, was a former member of the South Dakota Board of Regents, serving a six-year term from 1971-77 during the Kneip years. An attorney, Les had followed his father into the legal profession, and then assumed management of the Hot Springs telephone company, which his grandfather, Christian, had founded. The Jensens sold the telephone company in the late 1970s and Les relocated to Oregon, where he operated a used bookstore.

You can read his full obituary here.

I met Les on two occasions. The first time came in July 2016, when Les and his sister visited Pierre to hang a new portrait of their father, Governor Jensen. As Bob Mercer explained at the time:

[Jensen’s] old portrait, painted near the end of his life, several decades after he had left office in 1938, is gone. That image of Jensen is now in safe keeping at the South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center.

In its place in the Capitol’s first-floor hall is a new portrait, painted to reflect a more energetic and enthusiastic — and younger — Jensen.

His son, Les, said the new portrait is based on a snapshot taken of the family at home one evening in about 1945, shortly after the former governor returned from service in World War II.

The photograph happened to show the wry smile the three children recalled from his days as governor, according to the son. The new portrait shows that smile.

The two pictures reflect the difference between a man at about age 50 and a man about 20 years older.

Mercer’s entire story is available here.

The old (right) and new (left) portraits of Governor Leslie Jensen

I remember from that initial meeting how proud Les and his family still were of their father, more than fifty years after his death. And with good reason. I wrote a post about Governor Jensen at the time that his statue on the Trail of Governors was unveiled. Jensen was an attorney and longtime IRS agent before he returned to Hot Springs to run the family telephone company. With no prior political experience, he ran in 1936 against Gov. Tom Berry, a popular incumbent Democrat seeking a third term, and won. The Jensens moved to Pierre for a two-year term in the Governor’s Mansion, when the younger Les was six years old. Governor Jensen forewent a second term in 1938 to run for U.S. Senate, but lost the primary to Chan Gurney, and never ran for office again.

The Trail of Governors statue of Governor Jensen

One outcome of the Jensen portrait unveiling was that the family became aware of the Trail of Governors project. Les and his sisters agreed to fund a statue of their father, and in fact asked the Trail board to accelerate the Jensen statue to be unveiled in 2017. The Trail had already commissioned statues for 2017 of Tom Berry, Sigurd Anderson, and Joe Foss, but agreed to add Jensen as a fourth statue, making 2017 the only year that four statues were unveiled rather than three.

The Jensen statue pays tribute to Governor Jensen’s military service. As a member of the South Dakota National Guard, he had served on the Mexican border in the 1910s during the days of Pancho Villa, and then served in World War I, the only SD governor to have done so. After his time as governor, he returned to active duty during World War II, commanding his SDNG unit in the Pacific theater and serving in General MacArthur’s Australian headquarters. He acquired malaria while on active duty, which his children blamed for his aged appearance in the old portrait that they replaced.

The Jensens were a good South Dakota family. Sadly, none of them remain in our state, but Les Jensen will be returning to Hot Springs to be buried here. I was glad to have known him.