Twenty-five years ago next week, South Dakota lost its governor and seven others in a plane crash that united a state in a way no other story has done during my career.
After the deaths, residents stood along roadsides to salute and wave flags in honor of Gov. George Mickelson who had worked for economic development, education funding and reconciliation during his time in office. People shed tears along with his family and the families of the other men who perished when the twin-engine plane they were in crashed into a silo on an Iowa farm on April 19, 1993.
Mickelson was only 52. He left behind his wife, Linda; three children, and a whole bunch of South Dakotans who loved him. He wasn’t perfect, but he was well regarded as a statesman, even by those who disagreed with him at times.
Mickelson was easy to respect with a commanding frame, an enveloping handshake and a gentle demeanor. He had a big presence but remained a humble man.
One of my favorite stories about “Gentleman George” as some called him, is when he filled up his gas tank once somewhere in the state, and the clerk behind the counter asked for his license plate number. They used to do that occasionally.
Mickelson answered, “1.”
“One?” the clerk asked with some skepticism. “How did you get that number?”
“Just lucky, I guess,” Mickelson said.
I can hear his big laugh that commanded an equally broad grin.
It’s a little surreal to think that the crash happened 25 years ago. In many ways, that’s a lifetime. In history, it more like the blink of an eye.
We first heard about it in the state’s largest newsroom in Sioux Falls late in the day, just about quitting time, after finishing all the stories for the next day’s newspaper. The phone rang and an Iowa reporter asked our news editor if there would be a reason that a South Dakota state airplane would have been over Iowa that day. Then we were told that the plane had crashed while trying to make an emergency landing in Dubuque.
It’s the kind of information that affects you physically, with a jolt of adrenaline that heightens your senses. For a second, you memorize everything around you yet see nothing clearly. One of my co-workers said a prayer, and we got to work to tell the story of not only what happened but to paint a picture of who the men were and what they had been attempting to do.
The short answer is that they were on a mission trip to Cincinnati to visit with John Morrell & Co. executives to work on keeping business in South Dakota. The bigger answer is they were doing what we as South Dakotans can be really good at, preserving what we see as valuable for the betterment of us all.
The week that followed was emotionally exhausting as reporters covered each funeral and told countless stories and as photographers captured a state in mourning. People sometimes think that journalists have no hearts, but I can tell you that we do and we felt the hurt. It was a week of watching widows and their children, some fairly young, say goodbye. For many of us, we knew the men professionally: Angus Anson, Northern States Power Co. general manager and chief executive; Ron Becker, state pilot; David Birkeland, First Bank of South Dakota president and CEO; Roland Dolly with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development; Roger Hainje with the Sioux Falls Development Foundation; David Hanson, state pilot; and Ron Reed with the state office of energy policy.
I remember the last time I talked to Mickelson. It was the Friday before that fateful Monday trip. He was driving to Lake Poinsett where he was meeting his wife to check on their cabin. His car phone would cut in and out as he drove through hills and valleys to get there.
He was excited for the weekend and for the upcoming trip. He promised he would have a story to tell when they got back from Cincinnati.
I can picture him behind the wheel, that grin on his face. He undoubtedly was full of his trademark optimism and enthusiasm as “1” cruised over those South Dakota roads that he knew and loved.