Saying goodbye to South Dakota's own "Marlboro Man"

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
Clint Roberts' family and friends gather at the Presho Cemetery

There was so much to say about Clint Roberts, by so many people.

And a couple days to say it. In a couple of towns.

The big names, and the not-so-big, gathered for memorials in Pierre and Presho to honor Roberts, who died a week ago at the age of 82.

 From childhood friends to the governor and a former governor, they celebrated the life of the ruggedly handsome cowboy from Lyman County who appeared in movies and commercials, served as a U.S. congressman, state senator, state agriculture secretary and federal conservation official, all while running a ranch operation.

He was often called “the Marlboro Man” because of his near-miss audition for that popular commercial role, although that name faded over time.

His relationships with Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were among the many he had with national leaders.

But at the gravesite in the Presho Cemetery, on a mild but breezy Friday afternoon, retired Methodist minister J. Edwin Coates offered a simpler picture of Roberts.

“All these things he did,”  Coates said to a few dozen family members and friends, gathered in a tight circle around Roberts’ mortal remains. “But I remember him as the guy who carried our furniture in.”

Because above all else, Roberts was a guy you could count on to show up when he was needed, whoever you happened to be.

“Fifty and a half years ago when my wife and I drove into Presho with all our possessions in one little U-Haul, there were two men waiting for us,” Coates said.

One of them was Roberts, there to welcome the new minister and his wife and help lug their belongings. That earnest appearance began a half-century relationship that would reflect a common respect and affection and a shared commitment to integrity and trust, Coates said:

“Clint was strong and handsome and honest, the kind of guy you’d want on your side in a tug-of-war, and on the other side in a business deal.”

He could also be a formidable political opponent when he appeared on an election ballot. But his was a win-some, lose-some political career that began in 1972 when Roberts beat Democrat Fred Ellis for the state Senate seat from what was then District 23.

The district was a sprawling piece of West River real estate, including Jackson, Jones, Mellette, Bennett, Lyman and part of Todd County. It also included all of Washabaugh County, which became part of Jackson County in 1983, and part of Shannon County, which was renamed Oglala Lakota County in 2015.

Roberts would win two more terms in the state Senate before finishing third to heavy favorite Bill Janklow and runner-up state Sen. LeRoy Hoffman in the 1978 Republican gubernatorial primary. But Janklow, who would go on to serve 16 years as South Dakota governor (four four-year terms separated in the middle by eight years in private life), was smart enough to name Roberts his state agriculture secretary.

Roberts left that job to make a successful run for the Second District U.S. House seat in 1980, beating Democrat Ken Stofferahn  by more than 25,000 votes.
Another lose-some moment came, however, in 1982 when the state’s two congressional districts were consolidated. Roberts lost to incumbent First District Rep. Tom Daschle by a very competitive 9,000 votes. Daschle went on to serve four terms in the House and three in the U.S. Senate, rising to Senate Democratic leader.

Roberts wasn’t deterred by the loss, however. He ran for governor in 1986 but fell just about 3,000 votes short of the GOP primary winner, Brookings lawyer George S. Mickelson, in a four-way race that also included Lt. Gov. Lowell Hansen and Secretary of State Alice Kundert.

Mickelson went on to defeat Democrat Lars Herseth in the general election. And, like, Janklow, Mickelson was smart enough to put Roberts to work in his administration. In this case he administered a Conservation Reserve Program enhancement initiative that he had helped shape at the national level through cooperation with U.S. Sen. Jim Abdnor, also a Lyman County Republican and a man Roberts considered to be his mentor.

The enhancement program allowed qualified landowners enrolled in the CRP to get low-interest loans based on the payments through the soil-conservation program packaged in the 1985 Farm Bill. Coming off the farm crisis of the mid-1980s, it was essential support that helped some financially stressed farmers stay in business.

Roberts did the heavy lifting on that, just as he had years earlier when a young minister and his wife showed up in Presho with a loaded U-Haul. Those who knew him from childhood said he was always that way — strong and reliable and willing at work, and just as likely to be a leader at play.

Speaking at the memorial service at First United Methodist Church Friday morning in Pierre, former Dakota Wesleyan basketball coach and Fellowship of Christian Athletes state official Gordie Fosness described how he and his cousin, Clint, competed for the Most Mischievous Award at Presho High School.

An accomplished prankster, Roberts won.

So Fosness only smiled years later when he learned that Roberts and five other men had ridden their horses up the steps of the South Dakota Capitol and into the rotunda to liven up the 1980 Pierre Centennial Ball.

“I was not surprised,” Fosness said. “We did worse things than that in Presho.”

Better things, too.

Fosness recalled how Roberts, whose family lived on a ranch 12 miles from Presho in one direction, fell for a Presho girl named Beverly, whose family lived on a ranch 12 miles in the other direction.

“He was in love with her from the eighth grade,” Fosness said. “Four years later he married her. And they were together 64 years.”

Only lung disease could finally separate Roberts from his wife and family. Admitted to Avera St. Mary’s Hospital in Pierre early last Sunday morning, he spent most of the day alert and saying goodbye to those he loved, before drifting off toward the great beyond.

Roberts knew it was time, First United Methodist Pastor Dan Bader said in his eulogy.

“Clint was just tired, and he was ready to go home to be with God,” Bader said.

Fosness said his cousin, who was really more like a brother, was “a man’s man” who left little undone or unsaid during a life that “cut a wide swath through America.” Yet, Fosness said, Roberts lived and died with an abiding sense of his creator.

“He was a guy who maybe didn’t wear it on his tongue, but he was a spiritual man,” Fosness said.

That spiritual side brought Roberts together with the Rev. David Zellmer of Sioux Falls, now bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America’s South Dakota Synod. They met when Zellmer was pastor at Lutheran Memorial Church in Pierre.

Bishop Zellmer sat with the family at the memorial service at First United Methodist. And he spoke afterward of his friendship with Roberts, which included high-demand invitations to hunt pheasants on the season opener in Lyman County.

“Those opening days were amazing,” Zellmer said, adding that it wasn’t just because of the flurry of roosters. “You’d meet a billionaire there, and not just one, and you’d meet a mechanic from Vivian.”

Smiling as he stood off to the side, Roberts’ grandson, Hunter, a senior staffer for Gov. Dennis Dauggard, added: “Didn’t matter. They were all the same to him.”

So were all hunting dogs — and not in a good way, until they proved otherwise, Hunter Roberts said.

“A lot of times people show up with dogs that just aren’t very good. But their owners think they are,” he said. “And you know they can take off flushing birds and ruin a hunt. He (Clint Roberts) always said he had his .308 in the pickup, and if there was a dog problem, he’d take care of it.”

Clint Roberts didn’t crack a smile when he said it, either.

“He wouldn’t have shot any dogs, of course,” Hunter said. “But a lot of hunters put their dogs back in the kennel anyway.”

Zellmer took a chance with his dog, even though Roberts issued the standard .308 threat. And things were’t looking good when the dog took off and ran “about half a mile,” Zellmer said.

“But then my dog came back with a crippled rooster in his mouth. And Clint paused and said ‘OK, you can bring that dog back.’”

Those Roberts hunts will now go on without their captain, just as Bev Roberts and her family will go on without their husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather, who wanted to be buried back in Lyman County.

That final wish was granted on an unusually mild winter day, as locals ambled toward the gravesite in the Presho Cemetery. One of them, a rangy cowboy with the slightest of smiles, stopped to greet a reporter raised in the eastern part of the county with a tease that Roberts would have admired: "So, they let you Reliance guys come over for the day?"

I couldn't have felt more welcome if Clint had said it himself.

"Just for today," I said, with a bigger smile.

And there on a gentle, west-facing cemetery slope, with the prairie grasses and grain fields Roberts loved stretching off to the horizon, the family gathered around a wooden urn to grieve their loss and consider a future without their patriarch. They also heard words of solace and a challenge from Edwin Coates.

Now a resident of Hot Springs, Coates described how the largest pine trees in a forest can dominate their surroundings, much as Roberts stood out in his. When the large tree is gone, the others must grow to fill its space, Coates said.

“Clint was a tall tree in this family and in this state,” he said. “But now others in this family and in this state need to grow taller, to stand for the things he stood for.”

Educated as both an engineer and a minister, Coates proclaimed the scientific and the spiritual properties of the graveside goodbye.

“We give his earthly elements back to the earth,” he said. “And his spiritual elements to God.”

And the memories of a man as genuine as the Lyman County soil? Well, those live on among family and friends, and on the pages of history.


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.