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WOSTER: Honoring three generations of Herseths

I was a young news reporter when Gov. Dick Kneip won re-election in 1972 and helped bring a bunch of other Democrats into state offices in South Dakota.

I didn’t know yet how rare it was to see a Democrat win a statewide race in South Dakota, much less win re-election. I simply reported on the campaigns and results. After the election, I went about the business of meeting the new office holders. That’s when I met Lorna Herseth.

She was the widow of former Democrat Gov. Ralph Herseth, who served a single term, 1959 and 1960, and who died in 1969. In the 1972 election, Lorna Herseth won the race for secretary of state. She won re-election to a four-year term in 1974, when Kneip won for the third time. That was the last time a Democrat won the secretary of state’s office.

I found Lorna to be a gracious, courteous public official. She wasn’t one to seek recognition, but she did call the bureau the day she found, deep in the old vault in her office, what I believe turned out to be an original copy of the South Dakota Constitution. I remember how proud and pleased she was after the 1974 election by the fact that her son, Lars Herseth, had won a seat in the House of Representatives.

Lars Herseth served in the House until 1986, moving rather quickly into a leadership role. Lars had a quick wit and loved to laugh. He took the people’s business seriously and himself less so. In 1986, Herseth ran for governor. Republican George S. Mickelson, elected to the House the same year as Herseth, ran against him. Mickelson’s father had been governor, too. Mickelson won. After a couple of years, Herseth returned to the Legislature, this time the Senate, where he again rose to leadership.

Not so many years after Lars Herseth left the Legislature in 1996, I met his daughter Stephanie, a young lawyer from Groton High School and Georgetown University who wanted to represent South Dakota in Congress. In 2002 she ran unsuccessfully but quite impressively against Republican Bill Janklow, a four-term governor. Herseth won a special election to the seat in the spring of 2004, won re-election the next fall and served until 2010.

I always thought of her as being a combination of her dad and her grandmother; gracious beyond her years, serious about governing and always ready to laugh with others but never at others. In high school she ran a 400-meter leg on the school’s mile-relay team. I have a soft spot in my heart for people who run that race. Besides, she once took my granddaughter to the movies.

Stephanie Herseth Sandlin recently assumed the presidency of Augustana College in Sioux Falls, and last Saturday the South Dakota Hall of Fame honored her in its latest class of inductees. I spoke with her briefly during the day, and I came away believing Augustana is a fortunate place, indeed. If its students don’t recognize that yet, they will.

I also came away believing South Dakota has been fortunate to have received three generations of public service from members of the Herseth family of Brown County. In the Hall of Fame program booklet, a tagline on the pages about Stephanie reads, “A family tradition of public service,’’ and that’s the truth.

Now, I don’t think for a minute that Stephanie Herseth Sandlin just woke up one morning and thought, “I think I’d like to try public service.’’ She woke up each day of her young life to examples, to the stories of her grandfather’s service and of her grandmother’s and of her father’s. She witnesses people committed to a life of excellence and service.

The Hall of Fame is filled with such people. It’s a place that celebrates the achievements of the individual. More, though, it’s a place that celebrates a shared commitment to excellence. The stories of the women and men in the Hall of Fame can be examples to the rest of us of what it means to live life well and fully.

The pursuit of excellence is a worthwhile thing, always.