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Babies in drawers, reading in school and eight years of deferred maintenance -- Linda Daugaard looks back on life as first lady

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First Lady Linda Daugaard looks forward to life beyond the fishbowl

Babies in drawers? Sounds crazy, but sometimes it’s the safest place. At least for a while.

I thought maybe I heard wrong when Linda Daugaard mentioned that some people use bedroom drawers for baby sleeping quarters. So I backed up in our interview and asked: “Did you say that people put babies in drawers?”

Yes, she said, in small, low-income homes where multiple family members reside, a drawer might be the only place for a baby to sleep.

“When you have 13 people in a house, if you can pull out a drawer and put a baby in there, that might be the only safe place for them to be,” she said. “And they’re alone in there, on their back.”

And, all told, they’re pretty safe and sound — tiny little cribs, you might say. But it’s far from the best solution. That’s why the Cribs for Kid program offers cribs for parents as they leave the hospital, typically after the parents answer a key question: “Where will the baby sleep?”

The question is important. The way it is framed matters, in ways that can save lives.

“We ask that rather than asking if they have a safe place for the baby to sleep,” Linda Daugaard said. “What parent isn’t going to answer ‘yes’ to that?” So it’s better to ask them to tell us where the baby is going to sleep.”

Sometimes the answer is, “we’ll pull out a drawer and put the baby in there,” she said. But other more troubling answers include, “we have so many people in the house the baby may need to share a bed with several others.”

Which is not safe “just because suffocations can happen so easily,” Daugaard said.

This is a familiar conversation for Linda Daugaard, whose eight years as South Dakota first lady end this weekend along with her husband’s second four-year term as governor, the most allowed consecutively by the South Dakota Constitution.

When the first lady and I sat down in a Capitol office a few weeks ago to do the interview for this story, the discussion included from Easter egg hunts and Halloween treats at the governor’s mansion, and how much she loved those highly personal exchanges with the people of South Dakota.

It also included how Dennis and Linda Daugaard met as eighth-graders in Dell Rapids and their eventual decision — many years later — to marry. And it includes the more than 300 elementary schools she visited as first lady in the name of literacy and reading.

Oh, and also why she stays away from social media, and how happy that decision has made her.

But we spent the most time on babies and her work to reduce infant mortality in South Dakota, which Linda Daugaard considers to be her most important contribution as first lady.

“Dennis was the one who came to me about it, because he had been approached during the campaign about the high infant mortality rate in South Dakota,” she said. “And if you looked at the other states around South Dakota, it wasn’t that high. So he asked me to chair a task force.”

Which she did, in 2011, her husband’s first year in the governor’s chair. The task force was stocked with medical personnel from across the state and focused on the state’s troubling infant-mortality ranking and ways to reduce it.

From 2000 to 2010, the infant-mortality rate in South Dakota averaged 7.0 infant deaths per 1,000 births, which was higher than the national average and higher than most surrounding states.

The infant mortality rate for Native American babies in South Dakota was 12.4 percent, the highest for a Native population in any state.

According to the task force executive summary at the end of the year, 18 percent of births in South Dakota were Native infants, yet they accounted for 32 percent of infant deaths in the state.

A lack of prenatal care, particular among Native populations, was the first action priority identified by the task force. It was followed by promoting safe-sleep practices for infants, promoting healthy lifestyles for pregnant women and developing more community support systems and better education programs on reducing infant mortality and doing a better job of compiling and using statistics on the problem.

“And we started to see infant mortality reducing, getting that needle to go down,” Linda Daugaard said. “It took a real team effort, including the Department of Health and people in many many towns and the grandmas on the reservation stepping up and saying we need to get something done about this.”

Better prenatal care makes a difference. Discouraging smoking by mothers helps. Safe sleep situations are essential. And other things matter, too, including discouraging many planned early deliveries in pregnancies.

Hospital staff across the state cooperated in that, as did the governor of North Dakota and hospitals there, Daugaard said.

“We had all birthing hospitals in both states say they would sign what were called elective delivery certificates saying they would try to eliminate moms delivering early, when they weren’t at risk,” she said.

Linda Daugaard said some early deliveries were done for convenience, or maybe to make sure a particular doctor was available or just, “that they’re tired of being pregnant.”

The last could add weeks of a regular pregnancy to term including lung and other development that can be very important to the babies health, she said, so discouraging early deliveries for convenience makes sense.

From 7 percent in 2010, which was actually down from 8.3 percent in 2008, the infant mortality rate bounced around a bit before dropping to 4.8 percent in 2016. Then shaded up a bit in 2017. So work to reduce the rate, while improving, is far from finished.

“We’re still working on that,” she said.

It’s something she might well continue to work on when she and her husband settle back into their home  near Dell Rapids, where Dennis and Linda grew up.

Linda Daugaard taught school there after college and later when she and Dennis married and settled back in their home town. And as word spread of Linda’s involvement in the infant-mortality issues of her former students called with a painfully poignant reminder that each number in the sad statistics of infant mortality leaves broken hearts.

“She left a message in the governor’s office and said ‘you really have to keep talking about safe sleep, because I’m leaving my daycare without my 4-month old,’” Linda remembered. “She said the baby was fussy that day, so the daycare propped him up on his side, and he went over and suffocated.” 

The young mother recovered from that tragedy, finished her nursing education and works as an obstetrics nurse, Daugaard said.

“I’ve talked to her several times and said, ’Whenever you’re ready to help spread the message with me, we’ll do it,’” she said.

There will be more time for Daugaard to do such life-affirming, life-saving work, after the inauguration this weekend of Governor-elect Kristi Noem and Lt. Gov.-elect Larry Rhoden. Then the Daugaards can settle back into the home they built on the farmstead where Dennis grew up. There’s plenty of work waiting there, too.

’We have so many projects going on there — eight years of deferred maintenance,” Linda said.

They’ll put more focus on spending time with their daughters, Laura and Sara, and son, Chris, and their families, including five grandchildren that gave Linda Daugaard particular inspiration during her work in helping to lower infant mortality rates.

With more free time comes a lower profile, something she said she’ll like after “living in a fishbowl” for eight years. She won’t miss that fishbowl existence, or the periodic public criticism of her husband that came along with it.

Although she had a way of dealing with that. It was pretty effective, too. She stayed away from social media. completely.

“I really don’t know that much about the criticism, because I read no political blogs,” she said. “I’m not on Facebook and I’m living a wonderful life. I don’t even read War College (a popular Republican blog).”

Linda Daugaard said she did read some blogs “probably for about the first six months of her husband’s first term. Then I thought, ‘Why am I putting myself through this?’ And so I have no social-media presence.”

That might change once things settle down. She thinks she’d enjoy Facebook on a limited basis, focused on family and especially grandchildren, maybe with a limited group of families and friends. 

She’s still hesitant to go much beyond that. I expect to see her on social media eventually. I also expect to see her involved in key issues, maybe including infant mortality, for years to come. She has already received an invitation to speak to a women’s group. She can expect more of those, too.

In the interview, I asked her to looking back on her eight years as first lady and consider some questions:

• What she will miss most: “Oh, the personal things, like all the school visits. There were 300 of them we finally got to. And then the colleges, too. It was fun to go to Dakota State for their cyber camps and everything they have going up there on cyber security.

Promoting literacy and reading is was high on Linda Daugaard’s priority list.  The former schoolroom teacher and school librarian, who also served on state and local library boards, said she picked the third, fourth and fifth grades for her focus.

 “I just thought that people usually go to kindergarten, first and second grades, and then third, fourth and fifth are kind of lost in there,” she said. “So I thought about my time in the library and how it was third and fourth and fifth graders who were trying to decide if they wanted to read or do electronics or TV.”

With electronics and TV seeming to dominate, Linda wanted to push reading as much as she could. One of the many experiences she had was with a program where students brought books to school for exchanges and a student who made his own book to give to the teacher so he could take a book home.

The student didn’t have books at home bring for the exchange, she said.

“I was amazed by the number of kids who don’t have books in their homes,” she said.

She wasn’t amazed but was rewarded by the response from kids when reading was encouraged. She’d seen it before in her teaching years.

• What stands out as a highlight: “Getting to know the state.” She tried to make it a priority to travel with Dennis, meaning she attended events and celebrations and meetings across South Dakota. “Especially things in towns that were Capital for a Day. That was so interesting. There is so much going on in South Dakota towns that you would never know if you’re not the governor and get to go behind the scenes.”

• Having been so close to the political and governmental process, would she ever run for elected office herself? “Not at this age, maybe if I were 40,” she said. Daugaard said she was intrigued and inspired by politics through her work as secretary of several committees in the state House of Representatives during years when Dennis was a state senator and lieutenant governor. “They were so interesting, had I found the whole thing earlier, I think I would have (run for office).”

 *  Will it be hard leaving Pierre: “Yes, we’ll miss it. Pierre has been so welcoming to us. I would have never been able to have all the mansion tours if so many of the friends I met while working as a committee secretary hadn’t stepped up and helped. They were just great. So many people were so good to us.”

* Will you miss living in the governor’s mansion? She said “yes and no.” She’s looking forward to the move back to rural Dell Rapids but will also miss the mansion. “It’s a great place, a wonderful home. And when you have five grandkids and all that activity it’s so much fun. The biggest thing was a game of hide-and-seek, throughout the house. That’s been a highlight for those grandkids.”

It’s been pretty nice, she said, for grandpa and grandma, too.

Changing the subject a bit, would you talk about how you and Dennis met and how you eventually decided to marry?

 “We were in the eighth grade and his country school closed and he rode the bus into Dell Rapids. A mutual friend introduced us. And he was tall and handsome and fun.” 

They dated “off and on” during high school then headed off to different universities and sort of “went our separate ways.” Her way led to South Dakota State University, a degree in physical education with a teaching certificate and a job back home in Dell Rapids teaching and coaching girls basketball, a first for the school. They led to jobs at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and the University of California-Davis in Davis, Calif. The way for Dennis led to an undergraduate degree from the University of South Dakota, a law degree from Northwestern University in Chicago and a job in the Windy City for several years after that.

But they always stayed in touch, and when they were in their late 20s, living in different states and into their own careers, they decided to return to South Dakota and get serious.

“It wasn’t until we were 29 that we got back together and said, “Oh, I like how you turned out’ and ‘Oh, I like how you turned out,’” she said, adding that she also had a pragmatic question: “I said, ‘How much are you in debt?’”

Having grown up on a farm that struggled with economic challenges, Dennis Daugaard understood the value of hard work and careful spending. That served him well as a state legislator and also as a governor whose accomplishments included working with the state Legislature to eliminated a nagging structural deficit in the budget of $127 million.

It meant something, as well, to Linda Schmidt, the pragmatic third child in a family of 12 siblings. So they moved back to Dell Rapids, got engaged in December and lived with their folks while they planned their marriage in April of 1981.

A couple of years later, they purchased the Daugaard family farm homestead. And not long after that, they built their home .

Now they’re heading back to that home to have more free time for family and face eight years of “deferred maintenance,” a next stage in life that Linda Daugaard can’t wait to begin.