As Bill Walsh was growing up in Mitchell in a full house right across the street from the Holy Family Catholic Church, serving as an altar boy and attending mass virtually every day, it seemed preordained that he would become a priest.
“I struggled with it for a long time, especially all through high school and my first couple years of college,” Walsh recalled recently. “As a Catholic in those days, your choices for a professional life were doctor, lawyer or priest. Those were the choices.”
His mother, Ann Ripple, worked as a homemaker raising seven children, while his father, William J., worked for three decades as a supervisor for the Farmers Home Administration. Bill Walsh said his dad always wanted his children to attend “the sister school,” his term for the Notre Dame grade school and high school located adjacent to the church.
The church was so interlaced with the family’s daily life that if one of the boys failed to show up for his altar duties, nuns would simply call the house and ask where they were, he remembered.
Following high school, Walsh went to pre-seminary at St. Johns in Collegeville, Minn., for two years, and also attended St. Jerome’s University in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, for two more years. When he entered the seminary at St. Paul, Minn., in 1961, Walsh was 20 years old. After four years of theological studies, he was ordained in Mitchell in June 1965.
Walsh spent 15 months at his first assignment at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Salem, S.D., before spending three years at St. Theresa’s Parish on the east side of Sioux Falls. After four years assigned to St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Sioux Falls, he spent his last three years as a priest at St. Patrick’s Church in Cavour, an all-Irish parish 12 miles east of Huron, while pulling double duty at St. Paul’s in Iroquois, an all-German parish.
Walsh said leaving the priesthood at 35 years old didn’t result from a crisis of faith, but rather a decision to pursue a new calling.
“I had to make a decision at that point in my life,” he said. “Will I stay with this forever or go on to a new career? I always thought a person could have two or three careers in a lifetime. So, I retired from the priesthood and came to the Black Hills with 60 bucks in my pocket in the spring of 1976.
He spent more than two years as a coordinator for the Department of Social Services in the Black Hills, “making sure people weren’t falling through the cracks in the service programs,” then worked another year and a half as an outreach director for West River Mental Health.
While working the succession of jobs, Walsh remained involved in South Dakota Democratic Party politics. His first foray was supporting his Mitchell friend, George McGovern, in his bid for congressional office, which he won. Walsh attended his first national convention in Chicago in 1968 with Dick Kneip, who would later serve as South Dakota governor. In 1978, Walsh put his own hat in the ring as a Democratic nominee for the state’s 2nd Congressional District, but placed second in the party primary.
Walsh married Jo Roebuck-Pearson in January 1980, and the couple held the reception at the Historic Franklin Hotel on Deadwood’s Main Street. When one of the hotel owners asked the newlyweds if they would be interested in buying into the hotel as partners, Walsh said it took him about “three seconds” to make the decision because he had just been fired by new South Dakota Gov. William Janklow.
“I had always loved the bar downstairs which was then called The Gold Bar, and we agreed to buy in if we could manage the bar,” Walsh recalled. “So, that’s what happened and I tended the bar for 3,000 nights before gambling came to town.”
One of the original “Deadwood Seven” who worked to get legalized gaming approved by South Dakota voters, Walsh and his wife became majority owners of the Franklin Hotel in 1989. A short time later, Walsh quit bartending and began focusing on running the entire operation, which he did until selling the historic lodge to the Silverado Nov. 1, 2005.
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As he approaches his 80th birthday in October, we sat down with Walsh recently to ask about the different trails his life had taken, his profound love of his wife, family and adopted home of Deadwood, and his favorite memories.
Q: You came from a close-knit family. Today you’ve been married for nearly four decades and have a married daughter named MacKenzie Kurck who is soon to have your first grandchild. In the twilight of life, what do you hold most dear?
A: Family comes first, certainly. Apart from that, being of service to other people is extremely important. It’s a cliché, but leaving the world a little bit better place than when you entered it. I hope my legacy will be loving husband and father, staunch Democrat, Catholic, Irish and Notre Dame football.
Q: You suffered a stroke on Oct. 10, 2018. How has that changed your life?
A: The days are slower now. Once you look death in the eye, which I did, I think you achieve a better balance in life. Things that were important are not so important anymore. It doesn’t hurt to miss a lot of stuff. The fact Jo and I will be grandparents soon is something that I am very much looking forward to.
Q: How hard was it to transition from being a Catholic priest to running a hotel-casino in one of the most notorious towns in the Wild West?
A: Pope Francis said, “Get out of your church rectory, your clerical culture, and set up a field hospital to attract other people. And put some sheep manure on your clothes.” And, that’s exactly what being involved was all about. You do what you have to do to make a living. I was no different than a lot of people, who said, “In order to support a family and make a living, this is what I’ve got to do.” And I’m sure many people arrive at that situation. But looking back, I loved being a priest and I was a damned good priest.
Q: You played a major part in Deadwood’s modern-day renaissance, taking this place from boarded-up storefronts and crumbling facades to a town that has witnessed more than $300 million in improvements since ‘89, and now attracts 2 million annual visitors. What makes you most proud of the role you played?
A: The last of the Wild West frontier towns has now been restored, as we promised, and it’s now fun again. That took so much energy. The first five years of gaming were extremely exciting. Young people came back again, we had music in the bars again, the owners and operators of the downtown gaming halls would get together every week, and I knew that wouldn’t last. But it took so much energy and we were all competing for customers. So many committees and meetings. It all takes energy. Of what am I most proud? Deadwood voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Q: Where was Deadwood when you arrived economically, and how far has it come?
A: When I arrived in Deadwood, the interstate had just been put through and Deadwood was losing all kinds of sales tax money. The leadership of Deadwood, the business people up and down the street, were out of energy. A month after I got involved with the hotel, the brothels all closed, and we were losing all the young people who made Deadwood fun during the late ‘60s and ‘70s, with music and art and energy. Deadwood was dead. Through the Franklin Hotel, we helped keep things going, with monthly activities ranging from the Kenturkey Derby Races in May, our annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration, to the Jazz Festival in July, to the Hills are Alive Festival in October, to the end of prohibition celebration in December. We fired up the troops. The hotel was the center of action and the bridge between the business folks of the 1950s and ‘60s, the young folks of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and gaming since 1989. Since the advent of gaming, Deadwood has not only been restored downtown, but Deadwood has been restored through its residential areas. We are huge employer of people with more than 2,000 jobs, we have year-round top-notch entertainment, and we spread that good fortune across the state with grants, funds for State Tourism promotion, and myriad other projects that benefit our neighbors and our friends throughout South Dakota.
Q: You’ve been privileged to meet so many movers and shakers in your life. You knew George McGovern, visited the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, and sailed JFK’s boat with RFK Jr. You drank Jameson in the U.S. Ambassador to Ireland’s residence in Dublin. Tell us about your favorite memory and what impressed you most about one of those noteworthy individuals?
A: How the Kennedys handled tragedy. I was with Ethel Kennedy 10 years ago coming back from the Pine Ridge Reservation, and Joe, her oldest son, called her and said Teddy just went to the hospital. Ethel said to me as I was taking her to the airport, “Turn around and take me back to where we had supper last night. I need some privacy to consider this latest tragedy.” An hour later she comes running out of the restaurant, a big smile on her face and she says to me, “Joe just called again, and Ted is OK. Let’s go to Deadwood!”