Henry A. Poppen turns 100

Grandpa Poppen at his State Senate desk with me, probably in 1984

My grandfather, Henry A. Poppen, was born one hundred years ago today, on February 12, 1922, on his parents farm near Spirit Lake, northwest of De Smet. A loyal, lifelong Republican, he was born on Lincoln’s birthday. Grandpa lived a long life but didn’t live to his 100th birthday; he passed away on April 13, 2005 at the age of 83.

Grandpa Poppen was a major influence on me; he was interested and involved in state politics for his entire life and I inherited that from him. He spent twenty-six years in the State Senate, from 1967-92, always representing his home of Kingsbury County and representing neighboring counties as well. For most of that time, he served on the Joint Appropriations Committee. For his final twelve years, he was Senate Appropriations Chairman, serving for six years alongside House Chair Harold Sieh, and then for six years with House Chair Jan Nicolay. His twenty-six years of service make him one of the longest-serving legislators in state history, and I included Grandpa among the “Old Bulls” of the State Legislature from the 1980s.

Like me, Grandpa’s interest in politics started when he was young; he was a county chairman for the Nixon campaign in 1960 and the Goldwater campaign in 1964. (I have a letter he received from Nixon in 1960 shortly before the election that reads “With your help, we will defeat Jack Kennedy). After Nixon’s resignation, he pivoted to Ronald Reagan; I remember his old farm pickup for years had a “Reagan ’76” bumper sticker.

Thanks to Grandpa Poppen, I was able as a kid to meet most of the state’s major political figures of the 1980s and 1990s: Bill Janklow, George Mickelson, Larry Pressler. He was pleased when I shared his interest in politics, although when I joined the Mike Rounds campaign in 2002, he called me to nicely warn me not to be discouraged by losing; like nearly everyone, he thought that Rounds had no chance. I called Grandpa on primary night after Mike had won, and he really didn’t say much; he just laughed.

I also inherited from Grandpa a reverence for the State Capitol and for the State Legislature as an institution. He loved our citizen legislature and our legislative process, and many of his best friends were fellow legislators. When he died, his eulogy was delivered by Bob Duxbury, a Democrat from Wessington who was, like Grandpa, a farmer. It didn’t matter that Duxbury had been the plaintiff in a lawsuit that had struck down Grandpa’s efforts to build a new armory in De Smet; politics wasn’t personal and they got it built another way.

Grandpa and I also shared a love of South Dakota history; he was a longtime member of the board of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Society and, once he moved from the farm into De Smet, lived next door to the Surveyor’s Shanty. As a young man, he and his friends and driven across the state to see Mount Rushmore in progress, climbing to the top to see George Washington’s nose.

When Grandpa died in 2005, Terry Woster wrote a very kind remembrance of him in the Argus Leader:

Watch the South Dakota Legislature for any length of time, and you’ll discover that some of the most influential of its members do the least talking.

That’s how it was when Henry Poppen served in the Senate. The De Smet farmer joined the Legislature as a Republican in 1967. He won elections every two years after that until he decided in 1992 to let someone else represent the folks of Kingsbury County. He died at 83 earlier this month.

The obituary duly noted that he was a leader on the Joint Appropriations Committee, the group of Senate and House members whose main task each session is to take a governor’s recommended budget, study agency programs and staffing, and make the spending and the expected revenue come out even.

The budget always balanced, of course. That’s partly because the constitution requires it. During Poppen’s years, it was also because he wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“I’ve never thought of it as my money, I guess is why,” he said once when I asked him about his reputation as a bit of a skinflint with the state budget… He was a pretty conservative little guy, with a wardrobe that favored grays and earth-browns. Even in polyester’s glory days of the 1970s, when legislators were sporting neon leisure suits and flowered ties as wide as a freeway, Poppen stuck to a selection of charcoal jackets and navy blazers. A muted stripe in one of his ties was a bold fashion statement.

From the first time I met him in 1969 to his last day as a legislator in 1992, Poppen kept the same hair style, conservative, close-trimmed on the sides, with one unruly forelock that simply wouldn’t stay in place. He didn’t wast time on fashion or fads.

He didn’t wast time in floor debates, either. Most days, most years, he let the battles of words rage about him. When he did decide to stand and say something, the rest of the Senate listened. Likely as not, they paid attention, too, because a Poppen floor speech wasn’t an everyday occurrence…

Poppen’s goal each session was to have the general appropriations bill, the budget bill, written and ready for floor action at least by Tuesday of the final week. That way it could be debated and decided in one house on Wednesday, move to the other house for the same thing on Thursday and be done with a day to spare.

Once the budget bill had passed the Senate, though, that’s when Poppen became dangerous. His major work was done, and he was ready to go home. Of that point in session, a lieutenant governor once said something like, “I have to be careful not to recognize Senator Poppen. He’ll move to adjourn. We still have bills to finish, but, who knows? He just might win.”

That story is legend in the Capitol. It won’t be soon forgotten. Neither will Henry Poppen.

One might have even called him “Grandpa Cheap.”

Another nice tribute to Grandpa at the time of his death came from Former Governor Bill Janklow; Grandpa had always been a friend to Janklow and was the treasurer of his gubernatorial campaign in 1994. Janklow wrote a tribute to Grandpa and took out a full-page ad in every newspaper in his district to run it:

It was, at first glance, almost impossible to comprehend Henry Poppen’s power and influence by watching his demeanor. He seemed to be immune to all the fanfare and hoopla that attend every legislature. He was a good public servant because he had all the humility and humanity of a person who serves the needs of others. He was a true gentleman – unpretentious, unassuming, straightforward, and sincere. He was gentle and soft-spoken; yet, his infrequent words spoke volumes of unvarnished honesty and common sense. He respected the process and all the people in it – legislators and lobbyists, Democrats and Republicans, the people who agreed with him and the people who, it now appears, were wrong…

Hand in glove with Henry’s fiscal conservatism came a great caring for people. As both a legislator and appropriator, he sought to protect the vulnerable bookends of our society – the very young and the very old. He was always sensitive to the plight of the sick, the suffering, the physically handicapped, and the developmentally disabled. He cared about their problems and their needs and their hopes and their dreams.

Where did Henry Poppen get such genuine, purposeful strength? I found out when he took me visiting door-to-door and shop-to-shop in his district. He drew his strength of purpose from the people he touched and who touched him. When he came to Pierre, he brought along the values and beliefs of his neighbors. Since his neighbors had to make difficult choices when they balanced their budgets and set their priorities in life, so, too, should the State.

It is no accident of history that Henry Poppen came from Kingsbury County, one of the most historical places in South Dakota. The pioneers of that Couteau and prairie land left an indelible heritage of work hard, solving problems, helping your neighbors, and caring about your community. The homesteads of Harvey Dunn and Laura Ingalls Wilder are there, as is the birthplace of Rose Wilder Lane. You can even find the legacy of Jesuit missionary Father Pierre Jean De Smet, the mapmaker Joseph Nicollet, the pathfinder John C. Fremont, the enterprising editor Aubrey Sherwood, and the Nobel Prize winner Ted Schultz.

Henry will never be famous in the sense that those people are. He was an everyday hero whose unheralded contributions are nonetheless profound. Because of his life’s work, the state he left is much better than the state he found. Henry Poppen was a man on a mission. He did not just come to Pierre; he never forgot that he was sent there, to do a job – the most honorable work in a democratic society – the work of your fellow citizens. And when his work – the people’s work – was done, he quietly went back to his farm.

I am named after my two grandfathers – my name is Tonnis Henry Venhuizen. My son, Henry Raymond Venhuizen, is named after Grandpa Poppen and after Sara’s grandpa, Ray Daugaard. Like Grandpa Poppen and me, Henry at nine years old has also developed a deep interest in history and government.

To the dismay of some, Grandpa Poppen never threw anything away, and I inherited that from him as well – both the habit, and all of the stuff. He saved the Huron Daily Plainsman from the day JFK was shot, and the Argus Leader from the Mickelson plane crash. He also saved many pictures and campaign items – he seems to have loved producing campaign trinkets. Below is a gallery with some pictures of Grandpa Poppen and of some of those items.