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Terry Woster: Public servant has taken the trail home

The first time I met Walt Miller, he was pretty new to South Dakota's legislative process. The former governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the House and majority leader of the House became an institution in matters of state politics and publ...

Terry Woster

The first time I met Walt Miller, he was pretty new to South Dakota’s legislative process.

The former governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the House and majority leader of the House became an institution in matters of state politics and public policy. When he died Monday, at the age of 89, we lost a wealth of legislative knowledge and history. We also lost a decent, hard-working man who believed in South Dakota and its people.

Even so, when I met Miller late in 1969, I was a brand-new legislative reporter and he was still a pretty green lawmaker. He’d been in the House of Representatives for a couple of years then. Eventually folks would take to calling him “Walter Dale,’’ (and Walter D. Miller when he became governor) but he was just plain “Walt’’ back in the day. He represented the legislative district around New Underwood, and he looked the part -- sunburned, rail-thin, as unadorned as a steel fence post. He wore polished boots, cowboy-cut suits and a wide-brimmed western hat. He fought for his Republican principles and for the people he represented the way a West River rancher fights with a March calf at branding time.

He had a stubborn streak, for sure. “Walt has his neck bowed on this one,’’ colleagues would say. He could compromise, though, if that course of action made sense. It just took a good argument. He had the courage of his convictions.

He was a key player when House Republicans tried to cut Democrat Gov. Dick Kneip’s budget across-the-board on the final day of the 1976 session. The stalemate dragged on from Friday evening to late Sunday afternoon. In the end, the Kneip budget survived, but Miller and his colleagues made it clear the Legislature was its own branch of government.

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Miller served 20 years in the Legislature. He spent all of that time in the House. He told me once he loved the way the House could be noisy and boisterous but still respectful of the legislative process and of the people each member represented. He presided over that raucous group from the front as speaker, and he ruled over it from the far back corner seat as majority leader.

He moved to the executive branch as the late Gov George Mickelson’s running mate in 1986. In 1993, he became governor when the state airplane carrying Gov. Mickelson crashed. On that awful April night of sudden transition, he seemed stunned as he left the Capitol to go talk with the Mickelson family. As he walked toward the door, he turned and said softly, “pray for us.’’

He served out Mickelson’s term, leading in the wake of the airplane crash, responding to a prison riot and to the temporary loss of video lottery revenue. He lost a bid for a full term in 1994 to the late Gov. Bill Janklow. A sculpture of Miller in western work clothes and holding a branding iron is located on a Pierre street corner not far from the Capitol.

For a time after he became governor, Miller continued to live in an apartment in the St. Charles Hotel. He sometimes walked the two or three blocks from there to the Capitol, and he told me that now and then he cut down an alley to avoid the stoplight. Walking to work, he said, helped him to stay aware of people.

One of my favorite Walt Miller quotes came during an interview I did for an article aimed at giving people a sense of what he was about. He described himself as just an old cowboy. He said he got up with the sun and worked all day. At the end of the day, he went to bed, and if the sun came up the next morning, he got up and did it again.

Dan Seals did a western song some years ago, “God Must Be a Cowboy at Heart.’’ The refrain goes, “He made grass and trees and mountains, and a horse to be a friend, and trails to lead old cowboys home again.’’

On Monday, a good old cowboy took the trail home.

Related Topics: SOUTH DAKOTATERRY WOSTER
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