Five Guvs at the State Capitol

The South Dakota State Capitol is a special place. It’s a place where South Dakotans gather to discuss issues and make decisions. Although security has increased in recent years, any member of the public can still enter the building within a matter of minutes. And, once inside, that person can freely visit their elected leaders, talk to legislators, and watch legislative meetings. There can’t be many other states where any person can testify on any bill in any committee hearing – no need to get prior permission or schedule ahead.

And so, if one visits the Capitol regularly, one will get the chance eventually to meet all sorts of prominent South Dakota figures. It’s not at all unusual to see the governor, walking to the office or visiting with constituents in the Rotunda.

Dick Kneip, just one of the five governors one could meet at the State Capitol in the late 1970s.

A visitor in the late 1970s, though, would have had an unusual opportunity. During that era – specifically, during the legislative sessions in 1975, 1976, 1977, and 1978 – one would have had the opportunity to meet five South Dakota governors, current and future, all serving in the State Capitol at the same time.

It’s the only such period in South Dakota history.

The governor during those years was Richard F. Kneip, a Democrat would had been elected in 1970 and reelected in 1972 and 1974. He was a legendary “people person” and a visit with him would have been enjoyed by all. The lieutenant governor was Harvey Wollman, who died earlier this week. Wollman, like Kneip, was friendly and talkative. He had served as Democratic leader before joining Kneip on the Democratic ticket in 1974, and would take over as governor in 1978 when Kneip resigned to become U.S. Ambassador to Singapore.

Attorney General Bill Janklow was also serving in those years. He had burst onto the scene in the early 1970s, prosecuting cases related to the American Indian Movement, and had been elected AG in 1974, defeating his former boss, Democrat Kermit Sande. The Kneip folks watched Janklow with some trepidation – they were never quite sure what he was going to do. Needless to say, any visit with Janklow was a memorable experience.

Up on the third floor, there were two future governors serving among the seventy State House members. The senior of the two, in age and legislative experience, was Walter Dale Miller. He had first been elected to the State House in 1966, and, a taciturn and respected figure, by this point was House Majority Leader. Serving with him was George S. Mickelson, the son of former Governor George T. Mickelson. His first year in the House was 1975, but he had a natural ability to connect with people, and by 1977 he was already Speaker Pro Tempore, on his way to becoming Speaker and then Governor.

Five Governors – Kneip, Wollman, Janklow, Mickelson, and Miller – who among them would lead our state for thirty-two years, from 1971 to 2003, and who were all serving, together, at the State Capitol during those four years.

A visit to the State Capitol during the legislative session is always a memorable experience – former Lt. Governor Matt Michels has called it “the State Fair indoors.” And there have been other times when three or four governors walked the halls at the same time – the 1910s, when Robert S. Vessey, Frank Byrne, Peter Norbeck, and William McMaster all served together; or, the 1950s, when one could have met Sigurd Anderson, Joe Foss, Archie Gubbrud, and Nils Boe; or even the 2000s, when Mike Rounds, Dennis Daugaard, and Kristi Noem (and who knows, maybe even another future governor) all served in the State Capitol.

But those four years in the 1970s – 1975-78 – stand alone as the State Capitol’s only era of Five Governors.