PIERRE | The mystery was solved a week after former South Dakota Gov. Walter Dale Miller's death and almost 30 years after the key decision that led to his ascending to the state's highest political office.
Why, the question long had been asked, did gubernatorial candidate George S. Mickelson select Miller, a New Underwood rancher, businessman and long-time Republican state representative, to be his lieutenant governor running mate in 1986?
At the Monday memorial service in Pierre, on what would have been Miller's 90th birthday, state Rep. G. Mark Mickelson answered the question.
Mark Mickelson recalled his father sometimes would stop with the family at the Miller ranch. Watching the men together, he said he could tell his father felt that Miller “had all the attributes of a good partner.”
Miller had spent the previous 20 years in the state House of Representatives. Mickelson, a Brookings lawyer, was House speaker for the 1979-1980 term, while Miller served as speaker pro tem.
Miller died on Sept. 28, while in Dallas, Texas, during a trip to visit the library of former President George W. Bush.
At Monday's service, more than 200 people filled the rows of chairs in the rotunda and halfway down the east and west wings of the Capitol’s second floor. More people watched from the third and fourth floor overlooks.
In the very front, facing the assembled, sat two rows of dignitaries who held special connections to the former governor. Among them was former First Lady Linda Mickelson Graham.
Twenty-three years ago, she and Miller walked side-by-side leading the escort behind the casket of the late Gov. Mickelson down the front steps of the Capitol.
Miller was lieutenant governor for Mickelson from 1987 until the unimaginable news arrived on the afternoon of April 19, 1993: The state airplane, carrying Mickelson and seven other men, crashed in Iowa, killing all aboard.
Suddenly Miller was South Dakota’s governor, facing political challenges from all sides. He was governor for 20 months and 19 days, through one of the hardest episodes in the state’s history.
Democrats took control of the state Senate in the 1992 legislative elections. But as lieutenant governor, Miller remained president of the Senate in the 1993 legislative session.
The Senate’s Democratic majority chose Sen. Lars Herseth of Houghton as the president pro tem, the Senate’s No. 2 presiding officer.
Herseth had been the Democratic candidate for governor in 1986, losing to Mickelson.
Democrats also held the power to appoint their senators as committee chairmen. The Joint Appropriations Committee that writes state government’s budget functioned under split-party leadership.
Miller decided at some point in 1993 to run for election as governor. But Republican Bill Janklow, who previously had served two terms as governor, was planning a comeback after losing the 1986 Republican primary for U.S. Senate to incumbent Jim Abdnor. Abdnor beat Janklow but lost the general election to Democratic U.S. Rep. Tom Daschle.
Miller-Janklow was a colossal showdown in the 1994 Republican gubernatorial primary. Janklow chose Carole Hillard, a Republican legislator from Rapid City, as his running mate.
Emotions ran doubly raw as South Dakotans grieved the loss of Mickelson and faced an at-times vicious Republican primary campaign.
Janklow supporters leaked documents about Miller's private business dealings, while Miller supporters reminded voters that Janklow had split the Republicans eight years before by challenging Abdnor.
Voter turnout topped 52 percent in the Republican contest on June 7, 1994; Democrats mustered only 30 percent.
Janklow beat Miller by about 9,000 votes.
Just days after the primary election, Miller as governor faced a governmental crisis. The state Supreme Court declared video lottery wasn’t allowed under the South Dakota Constitution.
The Legislature came into special session to adjust state government’s budget and to put a constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot for the November 1994 general election.
Voters approved the video lottery amendment.
Voters meanwhile nearly approved an initiated measure that would have sharply limited taxes on property to 1 percent of the assessed value.
It would have eliminated about two-thirds of the property tax revenues for school districts and local government without a designated source of replacement funding.
That measure failed by less than 1 percent of the statewide vote.
Miller never again ran for any public office. He and Janklow never really made up after the 1994 primary. Miller was the last of the state's four West River governors.
At the Monday service, Daugaard noted that Miller was South Dakota’s first full-time lieutenant governor.
"Walter Dale Miller took the oath of office as governor not at a time of celebration as most governors had done, but at a time of sadness and loss," Daugaard said. "He was the right man at the right time. The seasoned, steady cowboy, Walter Dale Miller, was cool in a crisis, and in our sadness, we were reassured knowing he was in charge."
The tall, lanky cowboy epitomized the western South Dakota rancher. Miller almost never appeared in public without his cowboy boots. A toothpick often dangled from his mouth, and when he ventured outside, he completed the look with a western-style sport coat and a cowboy hat.
"When the state needed him, Walt was the cowboy who told you that everything was going to be OK. When our family needed him, he was the cowboy who showed up just at the right time," said Lance Burma, one of Miller's grandchildren.
Miller was born near the towns of Viewfield and New Underwood on Oct. 5, 1925, and spent his life on his family's ranch. After attending the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, Miller ran the 7,000-acre family ranch and was president of Dakota National Life Insurance Co. from 1970 to 1985.
Miller is the only person in state history to serve as governor, lieutenant governor, president of the Senate, speaker of the House, speaker pro tempore, majority leader, assistant majority leader and majority whip.
State Attorney General Marty Jackley described Miller as the “cowboy governor” and “Meade County’s favorite son.” As a legislator Miller technically represented Meade County because that’s where the ranch was, rather than Pennington County where New Underwood is; the Jackley family roots are in Meade County too.
Jackley repeatedly praised Miller for his loyalty.
Steve Kirby of Sioux Falls, who served as lieutenant governor for Miller, told the story of how he came to get that appointment. Kirby said he called the governor’s office in the days after the plane crash and volunteered to help in any way he could.
Days later, on May 12, 1993, the Kirbys found a message on their telephone answering machine. “Seven words,” Kirby said: “Steve – Walt Miller – Please call me – Thanks.” Kirby said he joked to his family that the governor was calling to ask him to be his No. 2.
Turned out, he was.
Another speaker at the service, Frank Brost, had been Mickelson’s chief of staff, but they had just parted ways. The plane crash changed those plans. Miller said he needed Brost, to which Brost replied, "I said, 'I’ll stay as long as you want.'”
Brost, his voice still carrying that same raw prairie gravel of a sheepherder’s son who took a strange turn into the halls of state government, acknowledged the politics of Mickelson, who wasn’t averse to seeking a sales-tax increase, didn’t always match the politics of Miller, whom Brost said had a “conservative approach.”
Brost said Mickelson and Miller were a great team.
“He was a great leader,” Brost said about Miller’s time as governor. “He said about as few words as possible, but when he talked, people listened.”
After he left office, Miller continued to spend much of his time in the Pierre and Fort Pierre area for the remainder of his life where he was among friends.
Miller’s wife Mary, whom he married in 1941, died in 1989 while he was lieutenant governor. After becoming governor, he married his executive assistant, Patricia Caldwell, on July 4, 1993.
After the service and a reception in Pierre, a motorcade accompanied Miller’s body to Rapid City. Visitation will be from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. today at Behrens-Wilson Funeral Home, 632 St. Francis St. A time of sharing will be from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.
The funeral will be at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Calvary Lutheran Church, 5311 Sheridan Lake Road. Burial will follow at the Viewfield cemetery near the Miller ranch north of New Underwood.