Earning the Craig Tieszen award: Nature and nurture led Dennis Daugaard to a life of civility

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
Dennis Daugaard in a familiar Capitol setting

Civility came easy to Dennis Daugaard.

First, I think, he was born that way. Some people are. They’re lucky. So are those who live with them or work with them or simply meet them somewhere along the way.

And I think Daugaard was just inclined to be a decent human being and treat others with respect and consideration.

Speak softly, you might say, and don’t carry a stick at all.

But there’s more to it than simply the courteous nature he brought with him into the world. There’s a nurture effect, too, from growing up on a small family farm in eastern South Dakota with hard-working, right-minded parents who just happened to be deaf.

Because of that disability, they were not always respected as they should have been. And each instance of discourtesy or disregard was a potentially wounding slight that their only son and his two sisters, Joyce and Sandra, couldn’t help but notice.

Nor could they help but notice the response from their parents.

“My parents were eminently humble. And I saw so many times when others would treat them with less than the respect they deserved,” Dennis Daugaard said in a conversation we had at the Capitol before he finished his second term. “And they just kept their chin up and went merrily along.”

It was a lesson both in good-natured resilience and in the proper treatment of others, including and especially others with greater challenges than most. HIs parents, Raymond and Florence, were limited by their deafness in their speech and writing, which was just one of the many obstacles in life they faced and overcame.

Again, that was something noted by Daugaard and his siblings.

“With the profoundly deaf in particular, their language is conceptual. It doesn’t use articles like “‘the,” and ‘and,” so instead of saying ‘Let’s go to town,’ they might say ‘Go town,’ and then give you a quizzical look,” Daugaard said.  “It would be very typical for my dad to use poor verb tenses, and he had a very limited vocabulary. So some people would think he was not very bright.

Some people were wrong, of course, really wrong. But even with his limited vocabulary, Raymond Daugaard spoke eloquently in other ways. So did Florence.

“Just by living their lives, they inspired me,” Dennis Daugaard says. “They were just such great human beings. They were just so good to other people, and so hard working. Never mistreated others. Just really good people.”

And they lived that way and accomplished all they did in spite of their hearing disabilities and also in the face of more common challenges that they engaged with the same determined good spirts.

In June of 2014, Dennis Daugaard wrote about some of that in a Father’s Day tribute to his dad, a man he recalled from his youth as seeming “big, strong and invincible.” Raymond Daugaard was strong enough to make a living and raise three children on 160 acres by farming and taking on supplemental work in town. But he wasn’t invincible. And when Dennis was a senior in high school, the combination of a weak farm economy and his dad being laid off from a supplemental job as a cabinetmaker led to one of the most difficult decisions a farmer ever has to make.

“Dad had to auction the livestock and equipment to repay our bank operating loan,” Dennis wrote in that Father’s Day tribute. “That was a hard day for Dad, and I know he felt like he had failed our family.”

But Raymond and Florence Daugaard were determined to hold on to the family’s quarter section of land, which Raymond’s father had purchased in 1917. So they both found jobs in town, but not a “town” closest to the farm, like Garretson or Dell Rapids. They found work in Sioux Falls, and drove back and forth each day.

They were limited by their deafness in what they could get, but they found reliable work as janitors. And they worked hard, eventually paying off the mortgage on the land and renting it to a neighbor.

To Dennis Daugaard the man, it was an American success story worth celebration. And to Dennis Daugaard the son, it was a daily instruction, usually without words, on how a man should conduct himself and the things he should value.

“By material and other measures, Dad was not a successful man. He was neither wealthy, nor famous, nor powerful. He died with very little. But in my eyes, he was successful beyond measure,” Daugaard wrote in his tribute, written a decade after his father died at 90. “He lived his life honestly, and bore many trials without complaint. He loved my mother and was attentive to her needs. He gave me and my sisters love, set limits and taught us that all work has dignity. He never used his disability as an excuse, and he did not let it define him.  He was the best father one could ever want.”

And he was a pretty good role model for a lanky farm kid who would work his way — in all kinds of jobs, each of which held its own measure of reward and dignity — to an undergraduate degree from USD and a law degree from Northwestern University.

From there, most people know the Dennis Daugaard story, in banking, leadership in child-welfare work at Children’s Home Society, his state senator duties, eight years as lieutenant governor and eight more years as governor. In his late 20s, he married a Dell Rapids girl he’d known since the eighth grade, and with his wife, Linda, he raised three kids who now have five kids of their own.

Along the way, Daugaard’s nature and nurturing showed up often. So did his humble sense of place and his inclination to listen more than he speaks and learn from what he hears.

I wrote once on social media that I think Daugaard’s ego-to-accomplishment ratio might just be the best in South Dakota history. Of course, I didn’t know and cover any governors prior to Dick Kneip in the 1970s. So there could be worthy contenders I didn’t know well enough to judge.

But I can’t imagine any, ever would top Daugaard in the ego-to-compassion ratio or in his commitment to civil discourse and respectful treatment of others.

Which is entirely consistent with his recent selection by the Rapid City Journal as the second recipient of the Craig Tieszen Award for Civility in Lawmaking. Journal leadership created the award to memorialize Tieszen, a state legislator and retired Rapid City Police chief, who died in a kayaking accident in November of 2017.

Tieszen was known and widely respected for his thoughtful approach to lawmaking, his respectful rhetoric and his civility toward others.  The first recipient of the award last year, former Democratic state legislator Julie Bartling of Gregory, made civility a priority during legislative terms totaling 16 years.

Daugaard has done the same. And Craig Tieszen’s wife, Deb, celebrates the Journal’s selection of the second recipient every bit as much as she did the first.

“Dennis Daugaard is a very practical thinker. He doesn’t make a decision lightly. He thinks about both sides of the issue and listens to all the arguments and the facts,” Deb Tieszen said. “And that’s the way Craig always worked, very respectfully listened to both sides and responded with his decision rather than reacting.

“Like Craig, Dennis Daugaard doesn’t make decisions from the gut. He uses his head,” she said.

Deb Tieszen said she hopes the award endures and inspires lawmakers to emulate the behavior of her husband and the award winners.

“I hope it gets to the point where there are so many candidates that it’s hard to make a choice,” she said.

I hope so, too, although that seems not to be the trend, nationally especially, but here in South Dakota as well. Politics are an angrier place these days, heavy on personal invective and bitter partisanship, and not so heavy on respectful dialogue and reasonable compromise.

A fire in the belly is fine. Strong convictions are essential. But we need more elected officials who adopt the Tieszen-Bartling-Daugaard style, which is both common courtesy and pretty effective governance over time.

Daugaard insists that he isn’t just being the nice guy. He’s being the practical guy, too.

“In the end, any rational person will recognize that it may be emotionally satisfying to tell someone off or call someone out, but it’s not the sensible thing to do if you’re a policymaker,” Daugaard told Journal reporter Seth Tupper. “You’ll regret it sometime in the future.”

Why? Well, first, it’s just a lousy way to interact as a human being. And it affects the way others not in public office interact, and not in a good way. Beyond that, as Daugaard noted to Tupper:

“The problem with being uncivil is that you make enemies who are less likely to consider your position in the future.”

And making enemies really doesn’t do much for that whole notion of reasonable compromise and productive engagement that Tieszen, Bartling and Daugaard have all worked to promote.

Daugaard told Tupper that he was proud to win an award named after Tieszen, whom he respected as a legislator and as a human being.

“To receive something that carries the Tieszen name is very much an honor,” he said.

There isn’t a Raymond Daugaard Award for Civility. There could have been, though. And Dennis Daugaard has been earning it since he was a child.

But the former governor says it would have been pretty hard not to follow this parents’ example, if you were paying any attention at all.

“I always thought to myself, ‘We always have to be careful when we deal with other people not to mistreat them, not to think we’re better somehow,” he said. “So I do think growing up with parents who had a disability helped me keep my place in the world, and not think too much of myself.”

His parents are gone now. But their way of living endures. In that Father’s Day tribute in 2014, Dennis Daugaard said this about his dad:

“He may not have been able to hear or speak, but the way he lived his life spoke volumes to me.”

And it can speak to all of us, lawmakers or not, if we only have the hearts and minds to listen.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.