In observance of Veterans Day, a look at the 12 South Dakota governors who served in the armed forces. The list included 5 U.S. Army veterans, 3 U.S. Navy veterans, 2 veterans of the U.S. Air Force, 2 who served in the U.S. Marine Corps, and 2 who served in the South Dakota National Guard:
Arthur C. Mellette – South Dakota’s first governor served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Mellette had been offered a commission as a lieutenant. His older brother, however, was an invalid and had been drafted into the Army. Mellette turned down his commission to serve in the enlisted ranks in place of his brother.
Charles H. Sheldon – South Dakota’s second governor also served in the Union Army during the Civil War, rising to the rank of captain.
Leslie Jensen – It was more than thirty-five years before another veteran served as governor. Jensen was a member of the South Dakota National Guard’s 147th Field Artillery. In 1916, the unit was deployed to patrol the Texas-Mexico border, and the following year was deployed to France after the United States entered World War I. Jensen was discharged from active duty as a captain in 1919. Following his service as governor from 1937-39, Jensen reentered active duty. He commanded the 147th, which was activated in 1940 as U.S. entry into World War II loomed. Jensen deployed with the unit to Australia, contracted malaria, and was reassigned to General Douglas MacArthur’s Australians headquarters. He is the only WWI veteran to serve as governor, and for that reason Jensen’s Trail of Governors statue portrays him in a WWI-era uniform, and is placed near the Soldiers and Sailors War Memorial building, which is South Dakota’s WWI memorial. Jensen is also the only SD governor to serve on active duty after leaving the governor’s office.
M. Q. Sharpe – Sharpe served in the U.S. Navy from 1907-11. He entered the Navy at 29, after having attended a couple colleges and worked in several jobs. Following his naval service, Sharpe, who was a native of Kansas, followed his mother to South Dakota, when she had established a homestead in Lyman County. He enrolled in the USD School of Law and went on to establish a prosperous practice in Kennebec.
Sigurd Anderson – Anderson was an assistant attorney general when the United States entered World War II. He entered the U.S. Navy as a legal officer and served in the Philippines. Anderson was discharged in 1946, and was elected attorney general later that year.
Joe Foss – No South Dakota governor is better known for his military record than Joe Foss. A member of the South Dakota National Guard since 1937, Foss enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1940 and became a naval aviator. He served as executive officer of Marine Fighting Squadron 121, known as “Joe’s Flying Circus.” Foss downed 26 enemy airplanes in 63 days at Guadalcanal in the Pacific theater during World War II, matching the record set by fighter ace Eddie Rickenbacker in World War I.
Foss was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Flying Cross. His citation said that “His remarkable flying skill, inspiring leadership and indomitable fighting spirit were distinctive factors in the defense of strategic American positions on Guadalcanal.” A photo of Foss receiving his Medal of Honor from President Franklin D. Roosevelt was featured on the cover of Life magazine. Foss was welcomed by 50,000 people upon his return to Sioux Falls in 1943, and became nationally known for his heroic war record.
Following his service overseas, Foss toured the country to promote war bonds, and was discharged as a major in 1946. That year, Foss was a founder of the South Dakota Air National Guard, attaining the rank of brigadier general. He returned to active duty in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War, training pilots from 1950-51.
Foss’ heroism is celebrated in South Dakota in many ways, including the naming of the Sioux Falls airport as “Joe Foss Field,” and the designation of his birthday, April 17, as “Joe Foss Day” each year. Foss’ Trail of Governors statue portrays Foss in his naval aviator flight suit, scanning the horizon for enemy airplanes.
Nils Boe – Boe was a Minnehaha County deputy state’s attorney when the U.S. entered World War II. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1942-46.
Frank Farrar – Farrar was a member of the U.S. Army Reserve while attending USD. Following graduation in 1953, Farrar served on active duty for two years during the Korean War, being discharged as a captain in 1955.
Richard F. Kneip – Kneip was in the U.S. Air Force from 1951-55, serving in occupied West Germany.
Harvey Wollman – Wollman served in the U.S. Army from 1958-60.
William J. Janklow – Janklow dropped out of high school in 1956 and joined the U.S. Marine Corps to avoid being sent to reform school. He was injured during the Quemoy-Matsu crisis off the coast of mainland China and was honorably discharged in 1959.
George S. Mickelson – Mickelson joined the U.S. Army after graduating from USD in 1965. Mickelson served in Vietnam and was discharged in 1967. Mickelson’s oldest son, G. Mark Mickelson, was born in Fort Knox, Kentucky in 1966 while his father was on active duty.
On June 16, 2017, the Trail of Governors unveiled new statues of Govs. Tom Berry, Leslie Jensen, Sigurd Anderson, and Joe Foss at the State Capitol. Family and friends of all four former governors attended the unveiling, as well as Gov. Dennis Daugaard and former governors Frank Farrar and Mike Rounds.
Tom Berry was a Mellette County rancher, known for his folksy humor. While running for governor during the Depression-era election of 1932, Berry promised to “take an axe” to the state budget, and after he was elected he cut state spending by twenty-five percent. His sculpture by John Lopez portrays these traits – Berry poses in a cowboy hat and western suit, smiling as he leans upon a fencepost, holding his “budget-cutting” axe in his hand. The statue is slated to stand in downtown Pierre, joining Peter Norbeck, Nils Boe, and Harvey Wollman at the corner of Pierre Street and Dakota Avenue. In the meantime he is on display at the Cultural Heritage Center.
The statue of Leslie Jensen pays tribute to Jensen’s service in World War I. A member of the South Dakota National Guard, Jensen’s unit was deployed to patrol the Texas-Mexico border in 1916, and then to France during World War I in 1918. After he served as governor, Jensen’s unit was once again activated for service in World War II, with Jensen in command. He served in Australia and, after contracting malaria, was transferred to General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters. Sculptor James Van Nuys portrayed Jensen in his World War I-era uniform, and the statue will be erected in front of the Soldiers and Sailors World War Memorial Building, which is the state’s memorial to World War I. Until the Capitol Avenue construction is completed in September, Jensen will be on temporary display at the South Dakota National Guard museum.
Sigurd Anderson was an old-fashioned orator, and South Dakotans would travel from miles around to hear Anderson’s lengthy speeches. He also loved people. Anderson never forgot a name or a face, and as his daughter put it, “Where two or more were gathered,” Anderson would be present to speak. Sculptor James Michael Maher captures Anderson’s friendliness, his love for people, and his skill as an orator with his statue. After the unveiling, Maher took the Anderson statue back to his studio for finish work. It will be on temporary display at the Cultural Heritage Center until street construction is completed this fall, at which time it will be installed in front the Sigurd Anderson Building on Capitol Avenue.
Joe Foss wore many hats throughout his life: governor, football commissioner, NRA president, and outdoors television host. But he earned his reputation, as well as the Congressional Medal of Honor, for his heroism as a naval aviator at Guadalcanal during World War II. Sculptors Lee Leuning and Sherri Treeby chose to portray Joe Foss in this defining role: wearing his flight suit, staring up at the horizon for enemy planes. His statue will be on temporary display at the South Dakota National Guard museum until this fall, when it will be installed in front of the Joe Foss Building on Capitol Avenue.
This Friday, June 16, the Trail of Governors is unveiling four new statues: Tom Berry, Leslie Jensen, Sigurd Anderson and Joe Foss. In anticipation of the unveiling, this blog is featuring short biographical sketches of the four governors. The sketches were originally written for the Trail’s website.
(Updated with a picture of the new Leslie Jensen sculpture.)
Governor Leslie Jensen was born in Hot Springs in 1892. His father, Christian, was a Danish immigrant who operated a stagecoach from Rapid City and later owned the People’s Telephone and Telegraph Company in Hot Springs.
Jensen attended school in Hot Springs and went to Culver Military Academy in Culver, Indiana. He joined the South Dakota National Guard and was deployed to the Texas-Mexico border in 1916 and then to France during World War I. Following the War, Jensen enrolled at the University of South Dakota, where he earned his law degree in 1921.
Following law school, Jensen became the federal collector of internal revenue for South Dakota, living in Aberdeen from 1922 to 1934. While in Aberdeen, he married Elizabeth Ward, whose father build the landmark Alonzo Ward Hotel. The Jensens had three children: Leslie, Natalie and Karen.
Jensen returned to Hot Springs, where he operated his family’s telephone business. The Jensen family also built and operated the Blue Bell Lodge in Custer State Park, which Jensen sold to the state in 1935.
In 1936, with no prior elected experience, Jensen ran for governor. He won an upset victory over incumbent Governor Tom Berry, who was seeking an unprecedented third term.
As a businessman, Governor Jensen strengthened state finances through increased taxes, cuts in state spending, and a reduction in state-held debt. As the only governor from the Black Hills, he emphasized tourism promotion. Governor Jensen also promoted highway construction and founded the precursor to the South Dakota Highway Patrol.
In 1938, Governor Jensen declined a second term and instead ran for U.S. Senate, but narrowly lost the Republican primary. In 1940, as American involvement in World War II loomed, Jensen’s National Guard unit was activated, with Jensen commanding the unit. He deployed to Australia, where he contracted malaria, and was reassigned to General Douglas MacArthur’s Australian headquarters.
After the War, Jensen returned to Hot Springs and resumed his business. He died in 1964, after he sustained injuries in a car accident on Highway 79, and was interred in Hot Springs.
The last few years have brought talk in South Dakota about the resurgence of the Republican Party. In 2014, for the first time since 1962, the Republicans won control of the state’s entire congressional delegation, electing Senator Mike Rounds to serve alongside Senator John Thune and Representative Kristi Noem.
The Democrats have not won a statewide election in South Dakota since 2008, when Senator Tim Johnson and Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin were both reelected. The Republican winning streak appears likely to continue tomorrow night, with the Trump presidential ticket, Thune, Noem, and Public Utilities Commissioner Chris Nelson all favored to carry South Dakota.
Although the Republican’s winning streak is unusual to the modern observer, there have been several longer multi-year winning streaks in South Dakota’s history, all achieved by the Republican Party. (These streaks include statewide elections for President, federal offices, and state offices. They also include U.S. House elections that were conducted by district, at the time when South Dakota had more than one U.S. House seat).
Here are the longest winning streaks:
1. 101 Republican election victories, from 1938 to 1954.
The longest Republican winning streak began as South Dakota emerged from the Great Depression and continued for 9 general elections over 16 years.
In 1932, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt carried South Dakota, as Democrats elected Tom Berry as Governor and won control of the legislature. Only Republican Senator Peter Norbeck bucked the trend. Democrats also won every federal and statewide election in 1934.
By 1936, Republicans began to bounce back. The party ran a vigorous general election campaign, led by State Party Chairman Harlan Bushfield. Although the Roosevelt presidential ticket still carried South Dakota, Republican Leslie Jensen defeated Governor Tom Berry in his bid for a third term, and Republican Francis Case defeated Democratic incumbent Theodore Werner for the “west river” Second District U.S. House seat.
This solidified in 1938, as Republicans won every federal and statewide election on the ballot. Bushfield was elected Governor, Chan Gurney was elected to U.S. Senate, and Karl Mundt won the “east river” First District U.S. House seat.
The winning streak continued with the Republicans winning every federal and statewide election in the 1940s, including the election of Governors M. Q. Sharpe and George T. Mickelson, the election of Governor Bushfield to the U.S. Senate, and the election of Karl Mundt to Bushfield’s seat in 1948. South Dakota also returned to the Republican column in presidential politics, supporting FDR’s Republican opponents – Wendell Willkie in 1940 and Thomas Dewey in 1944 – and Dewey against President Truman in 1948.
The 1952 election was the high-point for the Republicans. In that year, Eisenhower carried South Dakota with 69%, Governor Sigurd Anderson was reelected with 70%, Congressmen Harold Lovre and E.Y. Berry were both reelected with 69%, and the new state legislature had 108 Republicans and only 2 Democrats.
The end of this winning streak was due to the efforts of George McGovern. Shortly after the 1952 Republican landslide, McGovern became the Democratic Party’s executive secretary, and began the slow work of rebuilding the party from rock bottom. His efforts paid off in 1956, when McGovern ended the GOP winning streak by defeating incumbent Congressman Lovre for the First District U.S. House seat. That same year, Ralph Herseth won 46% in a competitive challenge to incumbent Governor Joe Foss. Two years later, McGovern held off a challenge from outgoing Governor Foss, and Herseth was elected to succeed Foss as governor.
2. 83 Republican election victories, from 1900 to 1912.
This streak began with the demise of the “fusion” between the Populist and Democratic parties, which had elected Governor Andrew E. Lee and Congressmen Freeman Knowles and John E. Kelley in 1896. The state legislature elected in 1896 was split between the three parties, with the tenuous Populist/Democratic coalition holding control. By 1898, the “fusion” coalition was already fraying – Governor Lee was reelected by a margin of 370 votes, but the Republicans won every other federal and statewide election and recaptured legislative control.
The Republican resurgence was completed in 1900, as Republican Charles Herreid was elected Governor. In 1896, the state had supported Democrat/Populist William Jennings Bryan for president over Republican William McKinley, but in 1900 the state supported McKinley in rematch against Bryan.
This streak continued through the early days of the Republican rift between conservatives and progressives, as conservative governors Herreid and Elrod gave way to progressive governors Crawford and Vessey.
It ended in 1914, which was the year of the first direct election for U.S. Senate in South Dakota. Progressive Coe Crawford, who had been elected to the Senate in 1908, lost in the primary to conservative Congressman Charles Burke. Many angry progressives abandoned the Republican ticket to support Democrat Edwin S. Johnson, who defeated Burke 48% to 45% with three minor candidates winning the balance. Democrat Harry Gandy also captured the open Third District U.S. House seat, which at the time covered west river.
3. 48 Republican election victories, from 1889 to 1894.
At the time of statehood, Republicans were the dominant party in South Dakota. From the time of Dakota Territory’s creation in 1862, Republicans had controlled the White House for all but four years, and this meant that the territorial officials, who were appointed by the President, were all Republican. Republicans also earned credit for pushing through statehood for North and South Dakota – Democrats had blocked statehood because of the states’ Republican bent.
Therefore, in the first state elections in 1889, Republicans dominated with outgoing territorial governor Arthur Mellette winning the governorship of South Dakota with 69% and Republicans winning every other state office by a like amount. The first state legislature had 143 Republicans, 20 Democrats, and 6 others (the bodies were initially much larger – 45 senators and 124 representatives).
Republicans continued to win against divided opposition in 1890, 1892 and 1894. The Democratic Party frequently finished third to the candidates of the “Independent Party,” which was a forerunner of the Populists. In 1890, Mellette’s share of the vote fell to 45%, but his nearest opponent was populist Henry L. Loucks with 32%. After two terms, Mellette gave way to Governor Charles H. Sheldon, another Republican.
This streak ended in 1896, when the Populists and Democrats finally agreed to unify behind a single “fusion” ticket, as was described in the previous entry.
4. 41 Republican election victories, from 1920 to 1924.
This three-election streak was ushered in by Governor Peter Norbeck, whose broad Republican support ended years of infighting between conservative and progressive Republicans. In 1918, Norbeck was reelected and Republicans won every federal and statewide election, save one: Democratic Congressman Harry Gandy was reelected in his west river Third District seat.
In 1920, Norbeck left the governor’s office and ran for U.S. Senate. The incumbent, Democrat Edwin S. Johnson, opted to retire rather than face the popular governor. On a ticket led by Norbeck, Republicans retained the governor’s office with Lt. Governor William McMaster, defeated Congressman Gandy with challenger William Williamson, and won every other federal and statewide race.
The streak continued in 1922 and 1924. In 1922, McMaster was reelected governor. In 1924, he joined Norbeck in the U.S. Senate, and Lt. Governor Carl Gunderson succeeded McMaster as governor.
It was Gunderson’s election that led to the end of this streak. Gunderson was a conservative and his election reignited the progressive-conservative rift. He initiated investigations into alleged “maladministration” during the Norbeck and McMaster governorships, and ended several of their progressive state-run enterprises.
The backlash against Gunderson surfaced in 1926. That year, Norbeck handily won a second term in the U.S. Senate, winning 60% despite the attacks from his fellow Republican. Gunderson, on the other hand, lost reelection to the first Democrat elected governor, W. J. Bulow. Bulow owed his victory to the crossover votes he won from angry progressive Republican supporters of Norbeck and McMaster.
5. 22 Republican election victories, from 2010 to 2014 (and counting).
Following the 2003 special election to replace Bill Janklow in the U.S. House, Democrats briefly held all three seats in Congress with Senator Tom Daschle, Senator Tim Johnson, and Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth. That ended in 2004, when former Congressman John Thune defeated Senator Daschle. In 2008, both Johnson and Herseth Sandlin were easily reelected. That same year, Barack Obama was elected President, with his opponent John McCain carrying South Dakota.
Obama’s election sowed the seeds for the current Republican streak, as he proved unpopular in South Dakota and drove voter registration trends toward the Republicans. In 2010, John Thune was unopposed in his Senate reelection bid – a first in South Dakota history. Lt. Governor Dennis Daugaard was easily elected governor. And state legislator Kristi Noem rode the Republican wave to an upset of Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. Republicans also won every down-ticket statewide election and gained 15 legislative seats.
The streak continued through 2012 and 2014, with Governor Daugaard winning reelection by a record-setting margin in 2014, and Congresswoman Noem being easily reelected in both years. The Romney/Ryan presidential ticket easily carried the state in 2012, and Democrats failed to field candidates for several down-ticket races in 2014.
The Republican Party is likely to extend the current streak to 26 wins on Tuesday night, but it will be some time before this streak moves up the list. Barring a special election, Republicans will need to win every federal and statewide election in 2018, 2020 and 2022 to move ahead of the 1920-24 streak into fourth place. (South Dakota used to elect statewide candidates every two years, which made elections more frequent). If Republicans hope to surpass the overall record of 101 set from 1938-54, the party will need to win every federal and statewide election until 2042, which would set a record of 108. That’s certainly possible, but a 32-year streak is unlikely given the cyclical nature of politics, and would be unprecedented in the history of the state.
(There are other ways to measure relative support for one party or the other. One way, which reporter Bob Mercer has written about extensively, is party registration. Another is seats held in the State Legislature, which will be the subject of a future post.)