McGovern proved big success can start in small places

Published Oct. 30, 2012, in The Daily Republic

Superintendent, Mitchell School District

One of the many things I have enjoyed about working in this school district over the last decade-plus is the fact that Mitchell High School has not only a very prominent alumnus, but also one who is very much alive and present in our community.

Part of that changed last week, of course, with the death of Sen. George McGovern. (It is one sign of his incredible level of accomplishment that I’m never quite sure which title to use — senator? ambassador? 1972 presidential nominee?) But only part of it has changed. He remains an alumnus and, though deceased, he also remains very present in our community — through his library on the campus of Dakota Wesleyan University, his affable socializing at community events (as recently as the downtown activities during Corn Palace Week), his numerous speaking engagements around town and his indelible mark on the lives of so many here in Mitchell who were able to bask in the presence simultaneously of fame and history.

People like McGovern provide something special for the students of Mitchell High School and all the schools that feed into it. They provide absolute, verifiable, undeniable proof that incredibly high goals are achievable by someone from our relatively small community. While many of us mouth this sentiment and some of us even believe it, you might be surprised just how rare it can be among young people.

They see Mitchell as a place where “there is nothing to do,” a Midwestern backwater, a hick town, a nondescript, blasé limbo where nothing very interesting ever has happened nor ever will happen. And this is really no fault of Mitchell. Nor does it accurately portray Mitchell or any of the other tens of thousands of communities in our country which the indigenous youth think of in pretty much the same way. Regardless of the reality, however, youth then take the next step and assume that only people from other more exciting, more stimulating, livelier places will go on to fame, fortune or amazing achievement. After all, they ruminate, how could anyone from my hometown possibly hope to amount to anyone interesting or do anything truly worth doing?

Enter the hero.

The hero, in this case, is that person who disproves, in one fell swoop, the adolescent angst of hopelessness in the future. He is the counter-evidence, the one demonstration that the ironclad rule of the impossibility of achieving greatness when you come from a particular, ordinary hometown is simply wrong. And thankfully, blessedly only one such demonstration is needed. Just as a single example of a violation of an all-encompassing scientific theory (understood as a rule rather than a hypothesis) will explode that theory, so will one native hero leave in ruins the idea that any geographical location is incapable of originating and cultivating greatness.

In 1972, I was in the fourth grade and I was part of a family that had voted Democrat since FDR’s first term. (Some members of my family are still voting for Roosevelt today.) But this wasn’t what made them partisans for McGovern in that election year. In a sea of homes on Hilltop rife with Nixon yard signs, my father erected a billboard monstrosity in our yard and on it, against a seat of blue with white trim, it exulted “McGovern.” Having caught the contagion from my brothers, I carried a McGovern poster into my classroom where the teacher had set aside one wall for learning about the election. I still remember my disbelief at the electoral outcome, but more than that, I remember the way our prairie populist gave hope to and fired the spirits of young people in a way that, well, Richard Nixon simply couldn’t.

McGovern’s ability to give hope to the young is something that remains, I think, at MHS and in all Mitchell schools. For George McGovern has left on our school and its students one ineradicable message that knows neither party boundaries nor ideological barrier: coming from Mitchell, South Dakota, is not an impediment to greatness, but a conductor. That once someone destined for greatness learned here means that someone else so destined may as well.

And in case you think I’ve given too little time and attention to our former senator’s accomplishments in this article, that to me does not detract from that which means the most to this educator — that he provided hope, a lofty goal, an aspiration for the young. Such is perhaps the most important role of the hero for in that legacies are born and through that they endure.