They say you should not speak ill of the dead, and that's not what I intend to do with former South Dakota Governor Bill Janklow. But the man could instill fear and anger among the South Dakota media corp during his four terms as Governor. Janklow died this past week at the age of 72, a victim of brain cancer. When I was offered a job to work in South Dakota's largest city, Sioux Falls, back in the summer of 1994, I jumped at it. One of my first assignments was to cover a news conference in downtown Sioux Falls put on by Janklow, who was running for governor again after leaving office in an unsuccesful bid for congress 8 years earlier. It was exciting, and people were buzzing about Janklow, with the old-timers exchanging war stories about covering the man during his first stint in office. Janklow was easily elected, and his four years in office coincided with my four years in Sioux Falls. Jesse Ventura was in love with the media compared with Janklow's relationship with the scribes. He frequently tore into reporters for their coverage of state issues, especially the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. I also was sometimes targetted, but was always advised not to be intimidated, and was told Janklow respects reporters who don't get cowed by the stocky ex-marine.
During my four years I had Janklow in for interviews at least twice, and was always afraid I would say the wrong thing, but he was generally gracious. But ask the "wrong" question and he would call you out. In the Spring of 1998, a tornado virtually destroyed the small town of Spencer South Dakota, about 60 miles west of Sioux Falls. Janklow sped to the scene to coordinate relief, and even ran into the edge of the storm that leveled Spencer. The next day I sent two of my reporters to cover the damage, and someone had erroneously told them people had until 6 p.m. that evening to get their personal items out of their homes before the bulldozers came in. We put it on the air, unverified...my mistake. Later that morning the "hotline" rang in the news room. It was Janklow, but I could hardly recognize his voice, he was so angry. He demanded to know if we made the erroneous announcement, and tore me "a new one." He yelled, he cursed, he threatened, he demanded the cell phone numbers of the reporters. I eventually had had enough, told him we would put the correct into on the air, and eventually I told him to "buzz (not the word I used) off." I don't know if he respected me more for that or not, but that was the last time I spoke to him.
I left Sioux Falls in the late Summer of 1998 and came back to Willmar. Janklow was reelected to another term, and in 2002 was elected to congress. His need for speed was his undoing, as he blew a stop sign on a rural road and hit and killed a motorcyclist from Minnesota. Janklow went to jail, resigned from congress, and disappeared from the spotlight until his announcement in November that he was dying of cancer. Janklow was intimidating, impatient and crude. He did not suffer fools gladly. But he was also smart, effective and cared a lot about the average people of South Dakota, and goes down in history as one of the most effective governors in that state's history.