Remembering Ted McBride: what a prosecutor should be, and a lot more
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From time to time during the last year, I’d be out walking in the neighborhood and see Ted McBride pulling out of his driveway in his little Subaru with a determine look on his face and a familiar bow tie under his chin.
And I’d ask myself: Where can Ted be going? The subliminal question was: Isn’t he dying?
Well, yes, he was dying. But he was living, too.
The dying finally won Sunday. But Ted McBride lived to the end, sharing his many gifts with the people who mattered in his life, especially his wife, Mary Linda, of course, and his beloved poodle, Manley.
But there was other essential sharing, too. And that’s what he was up to on many, maybe most of those times I saw him hurrying off, maybe flashing a wave and a smile to me as he passed or maybe just focusing on the street and the task ahead.
And that task? Passing it on, in this case to young prosecutors at the Pennington County State’s Attorney Office.
Because while Ted McBride was dying, he was also busy teaching, in ways that will endure.
“Ted was what we want prosecutors to be,” Pennington County State’s Attorney Mark Vargo said Monday morning, as news of Ted’s passing made its way around our city and our state. “He was compassionate and zealous at the same time. And that’s one of the hardest things for us to do.”
Yes, even to a non-lawyer, that seems like a difficult combination for a prosecutor to achieve. And it was part of what McBride brought to almost three decades of work as a federal prosecution here in South Dakota. After that, he also brought it to his volunteer job with the state’s attorney office, a role he took on after his failing health from pancreatic cancer forced him to retire from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Before being elected state’s attorney, Vargo was a prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and had worked with McBride. So after McBride’s federal retirement, Vargo immediately saw the value of having him come to the state’s attorney’s office as a mentor and adviser.
“And he was so dedicated to what he did that even when he was no longer able to work full time, he came into this office and spent as much time as he could mentoring and training attorneys, knowing he didn’t have much time to do that,” Vargo said. “And that will probably be one of his greatest legacies.”
That mentoring role included sitting in court and watching county prosecutors do their job, then later talking with them about what they did well and ways they might improve.
“We were truly blessed to have him,” Vargo said. “And it was a great place for him to be, outside of the chain of command. He could come in and truly give people advice, and they didn’t have to worry about it being on their next performance evaluation.
“He could tell you how to do it right, if you messed something up,” Vargo said. “It was truly just about making people better. And I really think he loved it.”
Vargo loved it, too. And so did the young lawyers.
I hadn’t known about Ted’s volunteer work after he left his federal job. So I told Vargo that probably explained where he was headed those mornings when I saw him all dressed up and heading out in his Outback wearing that energized, purposeful look.
Vargo agreed that was probably it, most of the time.
“But he would dress up looking like he was coming here to work even if he was just going to have coffee with somebody,” he said. “The fact that he had a bow tie on didn’t mean that he was going to work.”
No, indeed. Ted McBride was attentive to his attire in the way I try to be attentive to a turn of the phrase. It mattered to him, that “dressing up,” and he was good at it. He wore it well, too, in any situation.
Ted always dressed a lot better than I did. That was true even when we would meet while he was walking his well-coiffed poodle, Manley, and I was walking my scruffy springer spaniel, Rosie.
What is it they say about dogs resembling their masters? Well, let’s just say that Ted and Manley always looked great.
I described our dog-walking meetings in a Facebook post this morning that included this:
“It's appropriate that this sad Facebook commentary runs just above an update that includes a picture of my springer spaniel, Rosie.
"Ted McBride loved Rosie.
“He loved dogs in general, of course, particularly his big, white, well-clipped-and-combed poodle, Manley.”
“Manley and Rosie loved to play, as they always did when Ted and I would meet by chance while out with the pooches on the grass of West Boulevard, walking the dog-walker's walk.
“And while the dogs ran merry circles around us, Ted and I would get to chat, about dogs and politics and current events and the arts and even about the law.
“A former U.S. attorney and long-time, widely respected federal prosecutor, Ted knew a lot more about the law than I did. So when we paused on our dog patrol for conversation, I usually learned something about the legal business.
“But I learned things about dogs, too, and the arts, and, well, just about everything else that might come up. Because Ted was a well-read, thoughtful guy, careful in consideration of things that mattered and articulate in expressing his opinions.
“I'll miss that. I'll miss that a lot.”
As word spreads today of Ted’s death, many people are counting the ways they’ll miss the guy.
“The email responses I’ve been getting this morning have been touching,” Vargo said. “And it’s been hard for a lot of people here.”
Tim Snyder is one of those in Vargo’s office who feels the loss. The 30-year-old prosecutor, a native of Florida who has been in the office for about a year, said McBride’s open demeanor and conversational style made him easy to get to know, to like and to learn from.
“For me, I didn’t know him for very long, about a year, but I loved Ted,” Snyder said. “Some of the conversations I had with him were just about life. And I felt like I connected with him really well. I think he had that effect on a lot of people. He just had such genuine opinions and they were wise opinions, very well thought out. And because of the thought he put into it, he really had an effect on me and on a lot of other people.”
Snyder said Ted wasn’t one to “sit there and teach and lecture,” but rather he’d engage the other lawyers, ask questions, offer insights, talk about life and law, courtroom technique and good books to read. And he’d regularly show up at Snyder’s court hearings, where they’d talk before and after the hearing.
“Just his presence there made me feel confident and gave me someone to speak to after the hearing about what I could have done better, and just what he thought a professional attorney should do in those situation,” Snyder said.
And then there was Ted’s attire. He always gave a lesson in that, too, because he liked to dress up and because he respected the process, and those involved in it.
“He’d come to these court hearings that are really low-level stuff, but he’d always be dressed to the T,” Snyder said. “He never showed that this stuff was beneath him. He’s show up like that and pay attention, and really listen.”
Snyder said he’ll miss the “welcome surprise” of seeing Ted McBride stroll up the hallway toward the courtroom for a hearing. He’ll be just one of many feeling that emptiness.
Another is South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley, also a former U.S. attorney who worked with McBride at the federal level.
“South Dakota has lost one of its most respected prosecutors,” Jackley said in a text. “Victims have lost a strong voice that was always there for them. And I have lost my dear friend.”
Many are grieving for their dear friend Ted McBride. Many, many more who had a friendly relationship or positive encounters with McBride over the years are also feeling the loss. Some of them showed up on my Facebook page after I posted news of Ted’s death:
Former Rapid City Journal reporter Dan Daly: “I first met Ted in federal court. At the end of the hearing I was there to cover, Ted said, ‘You might want to stay for the next hearing.’ It turned out to be a better story than the first hearing.”
Former Sioux Falls Argus Leader reporter Rob Swenson: “Oh, no. This is sad. Ted was very helpful back when I was a reporter covering the court beat in Sioux Falls. He followed the news closely and always seemed energized by life.”
Reptile Gardens public-relations director John Brockelsby: “So So sad. Ted was the best.”
McBride friend Peg Seljeskog: “And his laugh! His bow ties, his eye twinkle, his take on anything being discussed. He was just the best. He will be missed by so many people.”
McBride friend Jeanne Apelseth: “I last saw Ted in downtown Rapid City right before we left for Phoenix. As always, he looked dapper and had a smile on his face and time to talk. What a loss for Rapid City. Sad, sad news. Rest In Peace.”
Rapid City defense lawyer Tim Rensch: “I am sorry he is gone. He was a class act in the courtroom and out.”
And again, Mark Vargo: “He made it very personal for the people here. And he really made an effort to stay with it. It was probably only three weeks ago that he attended his last hearing.”
All dressed up, of course, and a class act to the end.