Whether he was in public office or back in private life, Gov. Bill Janklow frequently observed that people didn’t get funerals right. He said they almost always waited too long, until after a person was gone, to give the praise and thanks.
Another comment that he frequently made was that he didn’t care if he got credit for something that was done right. There was a flip side: woe to the person who falsely claimed credit.
Janklow never talked about wanting to be the best governor South Dakota ever had. He just kept showing up every day for work, whether he was officially in office or not, doing things for people that needed doing.
That’s why for more than 30 years, he has been for many people simply The Governor, regardless of who was actually the governor.
Three times in recent days Gov. Dennis Daugaard delivered truly moving and accurate remarks about former Gov. Bill Janklow: first on public radio on the Thursday of Janklow’s death at age 72, then at the prayer service in the Capitol rotunda on Tuesday afternoon and again at the funeral service in Sioux Falls on Wednesday morning.
Being thrust into that spot isn’t duty for which a candidate trains on the campaign trail. As the flag-covered casket of the late governor stood in the rotunda early Tuesday, Daugaard could be glimpsed in the dark corridor outside the governor’s office just down the hall, still in his top coat, arriving for work on a day like few others in South Dakota’s history.
Some five hours later, as the crowd filed into the rotunda for the prayer service, former Gov. Mike Rounds and his wife, Jean, made their way to their seats two rows behind where the former First Family would sit. In the next seats would be former governor Walt Miller and his wife, Pat.
Across the aisle could be seen two other men, brothers Mark and David Mickelson, who suffered through the most immense tragedy involving a governor in South Dakota’s history. In this same rotunda their father, Gov. George S. Mickelson, had been honored after the 1993 state plane crash that took his life and the lives of seven others.
The raw and instantaneous shock of that tragedy can never be forgotten. People packed the Capitol for the Mickelson service. The mood was different, and the crowd somewhat smaller, for the Janklow service. After his diagnosis of brain cancer Bill Janklow knew his death was coming and prepared his family, friends and the public for it.
He had 90 days from the initial news from his doctors to the final end with his wife, Mary Dean, there beside him. It was remindful of something else Janklow was often heard to say: “We don’t have time. We have to get this done.”
The eulogies that were delivered Tuesday and Wednesday were like snapshots in a photo album. Some of those word pictures were precisely arranged, others revealed decisive moments or went behind the scenes or portrayed the four generations of family or showed glimpses of candor.
Every remark rang true from Webster Two Hawk, Larry Gabriel, Judy Meierhenry, Lars Herseth, Steve Zinter, David Zellmer, Russ Janklow, Tom Daschle and Dennis Daugaard. Each knew Bill Janklow in very different ways, often through very different times and tests.
In death the stature of Bill Janklow rose. Commentators and editorial writers suddenly declared him as South Dakota’s greatest governor, going beyond previous descriptions that ranked him on a level with only Peter Norbeck. The breadth of Janklow’s work, through his Legal Aid and prosecutor years, his four years as attorney general and his 16 years as governor, suddenly was considered unmatched.
The historians who never understood him are waiting to paw through the collections of public documents and personal papers. But as each person tells her or his stories about meeting or working or arguing with Bill Janklow, we learn again the essential truth of biography. They know their pieces, but nobody knows the full story of a man’s life except man and his God.
The real chroniclers of Bill Janklow’s public life were aides such as Jim Soyer and Marshall Damgaard and longtime secretary Mary Bisson. They were there.
Bill Janklow was a natural-born advocate. He was always speaking to a jury, whether that jury was one person on the other end of the telephone or a panel in a courtroom or a House of Representatives chamber with 105 legislators or a church full of grieving people or an unseen audience of thousands of listeners on public radio.
That trait was the essence of Bill Janklow. He spoke to South Dakota like no one else. He spoke for South Dakota like no one else. People listened and reacted to him like no one else.
One of his best and smartest friends was the late Jeremiah Murphy, a Sioux Falls lawyer half a generation older, who died just last winter. Murphy had an insight he sometimes shared with people he thought would get it: “Work where you live. Don’t live where you work.”
That was certainly true for Bill Janklow. He incessantly tried to make South Dakota a better and safer place.
He believed that if people learned to read well, they could teach themselves if necessary, and that if people could learn to work, they could earn a living, and that if they had opportunity to learn and work they could find freedom, and that freedom has never been free.
Once as he was hurriedly preparing to depart the governor’s mansion for another forest fire burning in the Black Hills he was asked why he felt he had to go.
He said people expected it from him.
Those who knew him well knew there was another, unspoken, half of the answer. He expected it of himself.