Craig Tieszen had a quality that made him stand out wherever he went, from the Peace Corps in Africa to the state Capitol in Pierre.
“He was genuine,” said Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender.
Allender was one of five speakers Monday during Tieszen’s funeral. About 900 people braved a blast of wintry weather to attend the service in the Fine Arts Theatre at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, where Tieszen’s life was celebrated as one worth emulating.
Allender described Tieszen as a man whose core remained consistent as his titles changed.
“He was Craig before, during and after he was a policeman and a legislator," Allender said.
Those two roles were the primary ones for which Tieszen was known to the public before he died Nov. 22 at age 68 in a kayaking accident on Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands, where he had traveled to attend the wedding of one of his daughters. Tieszen's brother-in-law, Brent Moline, also died in the accident.
Attendees at the funeral learned that the qualities so many admired in Tieszen as a longtime community leader were already present in his early 20s, when he served four years as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching high school classes in Kenya.
Allender read a Facebook message from one of Tieszen’s former students in Africa who wrote of Tieszen’s “integrity and humility.” In another comment read by Allender, a former Peace Corps volunteer commented that Tieszen was “the nicest guy, very intelligent and very funny.”
Before joining the Peace Corps, Tieszen grew up as a farm boy near Canistota in eastern South Dakota. He sold some cattle given to him by his father to raise money for college, and he earned a degree in chemical engineering from the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology.
After his service in the Peace Corps, Tieszen began a 32-year career with the Rapid City Police Department.
“It was a decision that would allow him to only earn a fraction of the wages he could’ve earned as a chemical engineer,” Allender said. “He always knew that, but never wished he had decided differently.”
Tieszen’s law enforcement career culminated in his service as police chief from 2000 to 2007. In that role, he mentored both Allender, who served as chief before retiring and winning election as mayor, and current Chief of Police Karl Jegeris.
After retiring from the police department, Tieszen entered politics in 2008 and won four consecutive two-year terms in the state Senate until term limits forced him out. He then won election to the state House of Representatives and was serving his first term.
During his legislative career, Tieszen earned a reputation as a careful, fair-minded, thoughtful lawmaker who was a beacon of civility in an increasingly coarse political climate. During Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s turn at the podium Monday, his voice broke with emotion as he described Tieszen as a “model legislator.”
“Most of us first heard about Craig’s loss on Thanksgiving, and for me it was a reminder to be thankful for our loved ones and for the time we’re given on this earth,” Daugaard said. “Craig Tieszen made the most of his time, and we can all learn from his example. Our state is a better place today because of Craig Tieszen.”
Some of Monday's speakers talked about the nonpublic side of Tieszen’s life. He was described as a devoted husband to his wife, Deb, for 37 years, and a loving father to their two daughters, Leslie and Laura.
When the Tieszen daughters were young, the family spent much of its free time with the Oyler family, and the families grew so close that one of the Oyler children was named after Craig. That child, Craig Oyler, now an adult, spoke Monday at the funeral and said his first “client” when he was an 11-year-old aspiring fishing guide was Tieszen. Oyler drew further laughs with several humorous stories, including his family’s use of Tieszen’s law enforcement connections to run background checks on the boyfriends of Oyler’s sister.
To distinguish between the two Craigs, Oyler said, the two families called Oyler “little Craig” and called Tieszen “big Craig.” Eventually, Oyler outgrew Tieszen, but the names still stuck.
“Even though I may have been bigger in stature, he was bigger in life, and he was a bigger man than I probably will ever be,” Oyler said. “And I’ll always look up to him for that.”
Jegeris spoke of Tieszen’s lifelong devotion to public service and volunteering, noting that Tieszen worked at the Rapid City Club for Boys during the summer before Tieszen entered college. Later, Tieszen served about 35 years on the organization’s board of directors. Beyond helping to guide the organization, Tieszen also volunteered and became known for taking boys on bicycle rides on the Mickelson Trail.
“He has been connected and volunteered in one way or another with the Rapid City Club for Boys for almost 50 years,” Jegeris said. “Talk about taking the term ‘volunteer’ to an extreme.”
Jegeris also mentioned Tieszen’s three-decade devotion to basketball officiating, including 25 years officiating at the Lakota Nation Invitational in Rapid City.
Rapid City Police Chaplain Corey Harouff spoke last and talked of Tieszen’s quiet faith, which Harouff said provided Tieszen with a “deep center” from which his positive traits emanated.
At the end of the service, dozens of public safety officials and state and local government officials accepted Allender’s invitation to pay a final salute to Tieszen. They lined up and walked across the stage to Tieszen’s coffin where, one by one, they snapped a salute, or touched a hand to the coffin, or stood in respectful silence.
Funeral attendees left in a reflective mood after being exhorted by several of the speakers, including Oyler, to live a life more like Tieszen’s.
“I know our hearts are broken. We’re confused. We’re sad. We’re upset,” Oyler said. “But in honor of Craig Tieszen, I ask you to greet people with a smile. In honor of Craig, I ask you to listen to someone tell their story. And in honor of Craig, I ask you to make someone feel like the most important person in the room, because I can guarantee that’s what ‘Big Craig’ would do.”