Throughout his life, George McGovern earned the respect of countless individuals from all political viewpoints and all walks of life.
From his days as a student at Dakota Wesleyan University throughout his long and distinguished career in public service, George McGovern never forgot his roots. He was born in Avon, S.D., on July 19, 1922, the son of a Wesleyan Methodist minister. The family moved to Mitchell, S.D., in 1928, and George graduated from Mitchell High School in 1940. He was an outstanding student, and his proficiency in debate won him a scholarship at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, where he enrolled in the fall of 1940. There he met fellow student Eleanor Stegeberg of Woonsocket, S.D. George and Eleanor were married on Oct. 31, 1943, and their five children were all born in Mitchell.
As a college student, McGovern was twice elected class president and won the state oratorical contest with the topic "My Brother's Keeper," an avowal of his belief in one's responsibility to humankind.
World War II interrupted McGovern's education in 1943. He flew 35 combat missions as a B-24 bomber pilot in Europe, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross. After the war he returned to Dakota Wesleyan University, graduating in 1946. McGovern then attended Garrett Seminary for one year before enrolling at Northwestern University in Chicago, where he earned his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in American history and government.
McGovern returned to Dakota Wesleyan University in 1950 as a professor of history and political science, where he became a beloved and respected faculty member. He left the university in 1955 to reorganize and revitalize the South Dakota Democratic Party, from which his illustrious political career was launched. He was elected to Congress in 1956 and reelected in 1958. As a congressman, he was an advocate for the American farmer and represented the nation's heartland with distinction.
After McGovern lost his first bid for the U.S. Senate in 1960, President John F. Kennedy named him the first director of the Food for Peace Program and Special Assistant to the President. In this position he oversaw the donation of millions of tons of food to developing nations. McGovern was then elected to the Senate in 1962, and reelected in 1968 and 1974. As a member of the Senate committees on agriculture, nutrition, forestry and foreign relations, and the Joint Economic Committee, he led the way in expanding key nutrition programs.
In 1972, Sen. McGovern was selected as the Democratic Party nominee for president, the only South Dakotan so honored by any major political party.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford named McGovern a United Nations delegate to the General Assembly, and, in 1978, President Jimmy Carter named him a United Nations delegate for the Special Session on Disarmament. After leaving the Senate in 1980, McGovern was a visiting professor at numerous institutions, including Columbia University, Northwestern University, Cornell University, American University and the University of Berlin. He served as the president of the Middle East Policy Council from 1991 to 1998, when President Bill Clinton appointed him ambassador to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. In 2001, he was appointed the first United Nations global ambassador on hunger. In this position, McGovern continued his leadership in the battle against world hunger.
A prolific author, McGovern lectured at more than 1,000 colleges and universities around the world. He received many honorary degrees and distinguished awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honor, which was bestowed upon him by President Clinton on August 9, 2000.
On Oct. 21, 2012, McGovern died in Sioux Falls, S.D., at the age of 90.
He was preceded in death by his daughter Terry in 1994, his wife Eleanor in 2007, and his son, Stephen, in 2012.
A war hero, 22-year U.S. Congressman and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, George McGovern will long be remembered for his courage in speaking out against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, his friendship and respect for the common man, and his work on behalf of American farmers and hungry children throughout the world.
Although Eleanor McGovern's individual accomplishments were less celebrated than those of her husband, they were no less remarkable.
Born on November 25, 1921, in Woonsocket, South Dakota, Eleanor Stegeberg grew up on a farm during the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s. Her strong work ethic and her lifelong concern and compassion for others are rooted in her childhood. When her mother died, 12-year-old Eleanor and her twin sister, Ila, took over all household responsibilities, helping their father raise their younger sister.
Eleanor and Ila were varsity debaters at Woonsocket High School, and Eleanor was the class salutatorian for their 1940 high school graduation. The twins enrolled at Dakota Wesleyan University in the fall of 1940. While a student, Eleanor served as a secretary in the office of the academic dean. However, because of her family's limited resources, she left college after one year to work as a legal secretary for two Mitchell lawyers, former U.S. Sen. Herbert Hitchcock and Fred Nichol who was later nominated for a federal judgeship. On October 31, 1943, Eleanor married George McGovern, whom she had met while both were students at Dakota Wesleyan. The couple subsequently raised five children - Ann, Susan, Teresa (now deceased), Steven, and Mary. Throughout the hectic years of her husband's lengthy career in politics, Eleanor provided a stable home environment that facilitated his service to the nation.
Eleanor came to the forefront of national awareness during Senator McGovern's 1972 Presidential campaign. George described her as his most helpful critic and most trusted adviser. And as one of his key strategists, she shared in both the victories and the defeats associated with the fight for causes in which she believed deeply. As the wife of a presidential nominee, Eleanor broke new ground by campaigning on her own across the country. An accomplished speaker, she stirred crowds from coast to coast and appeared frequently as a guest on network television and radio discussions dealing with national and international issues. Her high profile permanently transformed public perception of the role and value of political spouses.
From that time on, Eleanor continued to work tirelessly to improve the lives of children and their families. She traveled the nation to address civic, academic, and women's groups about her concern for the nation's children and on issues of child development, family life and the roles of women. Eleanor wrote articles on child development and appeared in media interviews on domestic, national and international topics. Following her daughter Terry's death in 1994, she spoke publicly about the tragedy of alcoholism.
Throughout her life, Eleanor epitomized Dakota Wesleyan University's tradition of service. As a longtime volunteer for the Child Development Center, she provided in-home education for parents of underprivileged infants and young children in Washington, D.C. She was a member of the Women's Democratic Club and served on the boards of directors for Dakota Wesleyan University, the Psychiatric Institute Foundation, the Child Study Association, the Erickson Institute of Chicago and Odyssey House of New York. She founded the Martha Movement and was a development officer for the Child Development Associates Consortium. Eleanor and her family also established the McGovern Family Foundation in Washington, D.C., to receive and disburse funds for research on alcoholism.
Eleanor's highly regarded memoir, "Uphill: A Personal Story," was published in 1973. In recognition of her enduring spirit and commitment to service, Dakota Wesleyan University named her an Outstanding Citizen in 1975 and awarded her an honorary doctorate in humane letters in 1997.
Eleanor McGovern passed away on Jan. 25, 2007, at the McGoverns’ home in Mitchell. She was 85.
For more information about the McGoverns, contact Laurie Langland, university archivist.