George McGovern Dying: South Dakota Remembers a Cherished Politician

Senator George McGovern is well-loved and respected by the majority of South Dakotans. As his final hours draw to a close, let’s take a look at the influence one man has had not only on American Politics, but also on individuals world wide. This is the second of a multi-part series on the life and events that shaped George McGovern. The first article in this series tells of the humble beginnings of George McGovern.

George McGovern remains unresponsive in hospice care. South Dakotans, and all Americans, pause to reflect on the life of a steady leader. 

McGovern's early experiences shaped his life’s work and passion. His family was barely above the poverty line much of the time. They learned how stretch his father’s meager salary, which never rose above $100/month, often compensating with potatoes and other items from the garden or farms of his parishioners.   

McGovern saw firsthand the effects of poverty and hunger in war-torn Italy. When the war was over, he returned to Mitchell and resumed his education at DWU using benefits provided under the G.I. Bill. He also returned to the battlefield of debate and won the Peach Oratory Contest for a second time with his speech, “From Cave to Cave." In 1946, the McGoverns welcomed their second daughter, Susan, and watched George McGovern graduate magna cum laude.   

Like all returning G.I.s, he had nightmares of the battlefield in the sky.

The family moved to Illinois so McGovern could continue his studies at Garrett Theological Seminary. As a student, he preached at Diamond Lake Church. He left the ministry in 1947 to pursue his graduate degree in history at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. 

After receiving his M.A. in history, the family traveled back to Mitchell, SD and McGovern took a position as a professor of history at his alma mater, DWU. He was awarded a Hearst fellowship and continued his graduate studies and expanding his family with a third daughter, Teresa, in 1949. He earned his Ph.D in history in 1953 from Northwestern University with the completion of a 450-page dissertation entitled “The Colorado Coal Strike, 1913-1914”. 

McGovern grew up in a Republican home. During WWI, his interest in FDR began to pique and his political views started to take shape. The beginning of the Cold War left McGovern disheartened, drawing him towards Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential bid. McGovern became an active volunteer for the Wallace campaign, but became disillusioned with the Wallace after he decided that the candidate was heavily influenced by ‘fanatics’, including Communists. He supported Truman, yet did not vote in the general election. 

In 1952, McGovern heard Adlai Stevenson’s acceptance speech for the presidential nomination for the Democratic Party and immersed himself in Stevenson’s campaign efforts. He published several articles for the Mitchell Daily Republic that caught the eye of the state’s Democratic Party. McGovern found a hero in Stevenson. He named his fourth child, his only son Steven, after the presidential candidate. 

After Stevenson’s loss, McGovern left teaching. After being recruited by the state's party chair, he became executive secretary of the South Dakota Democratic Party. McGovern then spent his time building Democrat representation in the state, utilizing his grass-roots network to start his own political career.  His efforts were quickly recognized by the DNC. McGovern soon sat on a political organization advisory group for the national organization.

In 1955, the McGovern family welcomed their fifth and last child, Mary. The next year, McGovern made his first campaign run for national office – the House of Representatives.  He won the election on a shoe-string budget. 

During his first term as House Representative, McGovern joined the House Committee on Education and Labor. He supported higher commodity prices, farm price supports, grain programs, and the beginning of beef import controls to guard against drought and other natural disasters. 

Additionally, McGovern supported rural development, federal aid to small business, education, and health insurance for our seniors, as well as John F. Kennedy’s unsuccessful labor reform bill. He earned a fellowship from the American Christian Palestine Committee which provided him the opportunity to travel and study the Middle East.

In 1958, he successfully defended his seat against former South Dakotan governor and fellow war hero Joe Foss. His second term found McGovern on the House Committee on Agriculture, which enabled him to expand his personal mission to fight hunger. He was a leading advocate in the passage of the food stamp law and championed the expansion of Agricultural Trade Development Assistance Act to include combating world hunger and establishing an executive office to run it. For the most part, McGovern voted along party lines during his house tenure, but he was known to reach across the aisle. 

In 1960, he gave up his House Seat in an unsuccessful bid for Senate. His past support of Wallace cost him the election, but opened an opportunity to bring his fight against hunger to a new level, as Special Assistant to the President and the first director of Kennedy’s Food for Peace program.