Former South Dakota Governor, Walter Dale Miller, Dies At 89

Last Updated by Nate Wek on
South Dakota Governor Walter Dale Miller
Richard Miller

South Dakota's 29th Governor Walter Dale Miller passed away on Monday evening at the age of 89.

Miller spent two decades in the South Dakota House of Representatives. In 1986 he was elected as the Lieutenant Governor for South Dakota Governor George S. Mickelson. In 1993, Mickelson was killed in a plane crash, which inserted Miller into the role of Governor.

Janelle Toman was the press secretary for both Miller and Mickelson. She remembers that transition.

“Normal… [at the inauguration] was not possible, not appropriate, and not available to him. And I remember that very well, him standing up in the rotunda, getting that done and having that take place,” said Toman. “And you wanted to be very happy for him because it was a very important moment, but it was under less-than-ideal circumstances.”

Toman said people recall Miller’s quiet governing in the wake of the crash - but she hopes South Dakotans consider his time before and after he took office as well.

“He felt compelled to serve his state, and that was something he felt was part of his duty as a citizen, and he felt he had something to contribute and something to give,” explained Toman. “He loved the legislative process. He loved the give and take. He was probably one of the best managers of people in terms of seeking consensus and working through issues of anyone I’ve ever met.”

Governor Miller was known for always wearing cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. Toman told a story to South Dakota Public Broadcasting radio reporter Kealey Bultena, about the former Governor’s western attire.

“Governor Miller was definitely a western man and a cowboy gentleman in the true sense of the word. He always dressed impeccably, and he usually, in fact, I don’t recall ever seeing him in anything other than cowboy boots and always a hat,” said Toman. “And whenever we traveled, he always had that cowboy hat, but he was very much, again, a gentleman and understood what he needed to do, so the hat always came off inside of a building or inside of a meeting room, and several times when I was traveling with him I was kind of the custodian of the hat.”

Toman joked that she learned what to do, and what NOT to do when taking care of Governor Miller’s hat.

“He indicated to me one time that it was a pretty bad deal when I set the hat down brim down,” said Toman. “You should always set the hat crown-down so that you don’t damage the brim, so I had learned over the years that, whenever I see a cowboy hat and it’s sitting somewhere, I have this feeling that I need to set it with the crown down. So he was very particular about his hats and how he looked.”

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Photo credit: Patrick Callahan

When Miller took office, he was faced with a few unique challenges right away. Governor Miller’s Lieutenant Governor, Steve Kirby, mentioned the disaster that began the day before Miller’s wedding to his second wife Patricia Caldwell.

“And that was during the 1993 floods, that ran from Madison, South Dakota all the way to New Orleans. And he knew, being as small as we were compared to the downstream states that were much bigger—filed a request to have South Dakota declared a disaster by the Federal Government in record time,” said Kirby. “So he was juggling, kind of like the fellow who spins a lot of the plates, he was spinning a lot of plates. He had a lot of balls in the air and he executed flawlessly.”

Kirby also mentioned Miller having to deal with a prison riot that ended without any loss of life, and the temporary shut-down of video lottery after it was declared unconstitutional.

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Photo credit: Patrick Callahan

A South Dakota political scientist claims the state is still seeing benefits from the service of Walter Dale Miller. Mike Card with the University of South Dakota said, in a very quiet way, Miller allowed people in the state to feel less isolated.

“You know, if you think about it, he’s the person who at the time spearheaded development of the Rural Development Communications Network—which created the possibility that a state as large and as diverse as we are, with distances and dispersions characterizing South Dakota, so that you didn’t have to travel to attend meetings,” explained Card. “Now that’s old technology, but it paved the way for the Dakota Digital Network, it paved the way for the setting up of the wiring of the schools.”

Card also mentioned Miller’s work at defeating a vote to establish a state income tax. This led to property tax reform spearheaded by Governor Bill Janklow. Card says because of that work, many state residents have lower tax bills than they had 20 years ago.

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Current South Dakota politicians also wanted to join the conversation on Tuesday to send their condolences to the family and friends of former state Governor Walter Dale Miller.

US Senator (and former SD Governor) Mike Rounds

“Jean and I send our deepest sympathies to Pat and the Miller family as they deal with this tragic loss,” said Rounds. “Walt was a longtime friend and mentor who led our state through a difficult time. His love of South Dakota and legacy of public service is one we can all admire. Our thoughts and prayers will continue to be with the Millers.”

South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard

“Governor Miller was a friend and I will miss him. Walter Dale Miller assumed the governorship at a time of tragedy and sorrow. He provided a steady hand as our state mourned the loss of Gov. Mickelson. Through his long career in public office, Walt worked hard and put South Dakota first. Linda and I express our deepest sympathies to Pat and the entire Miller family.”

US Senator John Thune

"Kimberley's and my thoughts and prayers are with former Gov. Miller's family and friends," Thune said. "Thanks to his service, South Dakota is a better place. I consider it an honor and a privilege to have called him my friend during his long tenure of service to our state."

US Representative Kristi Noem

"His counsel and encouragement served our state and its leaders for years after his official duties concluded. I personally appreciated his friendship and insight over the years. He will be sincerely missed.”

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