A Mythical State Of Mind: 80 Years of Boys State in Aberdeen

A Mythical State Of Mind: 80 Years of Boys State in Aberdeen

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South Dakota Boys State features several interactive opportunities including a debate between candidates running for governor. Photo courtesy of South Dakota Boys State.

Every year on Memorial Day weekend, hundreds of high school junior boys descend on Aberdeen for a weeklong experiment in governing a mythical 51st state during the American Legion’s Boys State. The civics camp has never been held anywhere but Aberdeen.

Two Aberdeen attorney alumni shared summations of their experience. Robert Fouberg, Dacotah Bank Chairman of the Board and CEO, who participated in Boys State in 1987, explained the program “is designed to teach young people the basic structure, interconnections, and operations of state and local government in South Dakota. I think it did a great job for me.” Siegel, Barnett & Schutz partner Rod Tobin (Boys State 1980) added, “It was an eye-opening experience for me. Boys State taught me that you do not sit back passively if you want to have a say in things.”

A year before I attended in 1978, I read Lord of the Flies (1954) in English class. About a group of British schoolboys rescued from nuclear war but stranded on a remote island, the novel describes

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On a daily basis, boys have 6:30 AM reveille, followed by calisthenics, assemblies, government duties, potlicking, meals and recreation until 10:45 PM lights out.

their ill-fated attempts to govern themselves. In retrospect, the book could have been pre-reading for Boys State. At the time, I would have been too clueless to imagine it through the lens of the book, which, anyway, would have stretched comparisons past the breaking point. But in the contrasts there may be lessons.

 

81st Year

This May’s Boys State will be its 81st. According to the American Legion’s website, the program launched in 1935 in Illinois as a response to socialist-inspired Young Pioneer Camps. Three years later, Judge Harry Mundt of Mobridge reported on it to a South Dakota Legion convention, but no action was taken. The program spread quickly across the country, and by 1940, South Dakota was one of only ten states not participating. In that year, four Aberdonians—N.P. Wenge, Ivan Huntsinger, Dr. Harry Darling, and C.J. Dalthorp—got interested. With Mundt’s help, they planned the first Boys State for Northern State Teachers College in mid-July.

The event drew 158 delegates from 98 towns, including ten from Aberdeen. South Dakota’s Governor Harlan Bushfield spoke on the first day. Among other activities, Boys Staters marched in a Main Street parade.

The basic format of the week has stayed much the same over the years, with daily instruction and practice in how government works in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches at the city, county and state levels. Assigned to cities and to one of two political parties, boys made and enforced laws and pursued elected and appointed positions throughout the week. Groton’s Robert Wood defeated Aberdeen’s James Sieh in the race for the first governor. Maybe it didn’t help that the Sunshine Scribe daily newspaper published by Journalism City reported that Sieh complained “blusteringly” about sending one-cent postcards to his parents every day since they lived only two blocks away. Wood’s platform called for making Aberdeen Boys State’s permanent home. Promise kept!

Boys State continued in 1941 and 1942, but World War II forced a suspension until 1946. It has met every year since, except for a 2020 pause for the COVID pandemic.

The program has had an impact. Circuit Court Judge Marshall Lovrien (’98), who has volunteered with Boys State’s judicial section since 2006, has seen “a lot of Boys State attendees involved in leadership roles in the state.” To list just a few: native Aberdonian and former Senator Tom Daschle (’64), Senator John Thune (’78), Representative Dusty Johnson (’94), and former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw (1957 governor).

 

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Many prominent Legionnaires participated in the organization of South Dakota Boys State, but some of the more active promoters were Ivan Huntsinger, Mr. Charles Dalthorp, N. Peter Wenge, Dr. Harry Darling, all of Aberdeen, and Judge Harry Mundt.

Busy Week

On a daily basis, boys have 6:30 AM reveille, followed by calisthenics, assemblies, government duties, politicking, meals and recreation until 10:45 PM lights out. Throughout the week, local and state government officials come to explain their jobs.

“I think South Dakota is the top program in the country,” camp director Davin Johnson of Aberdeen says. “We get so many of the state-level officials to participate—Senators, Representatives, Governor, legislators, Supreme Court.” He concluded, “It’s the best leadership camp in the nation because of the people who come. It doesn’t happen elsewhere like it does here.”

Aberdeen attorney Dennis Maloney (’47) spoke about election rules in 1964. More recent local speakers include Brown County Commissioners Rachel Kippley and Mike Wiese, Aberdeen Mayor Travis Schaunaman, City Councilmember Josh Rife, and state senator Al Novstrup.

One of the highlights of the week is electing the governor. After a first-year loss, it took nearly 20 years for Aberdeen to get a win. One might be forgiven for wondering if the fix was in to produce a hometown governor because in 1959 both parties’ nominees were from Aberdeen, Daryl Summers and Carl Anderson, guaranteeing a Hub City triumph. Summers won.

Three other Aberdonians have been elected governor: David Dornbush (‘67), Nathan Aman (‘94), and Sam Merkel (‘06). In 2013, Westport’s Tyson Mitzel, a Roncalli junior, and Central’s Matthew VanBeek were elected governor and lieutenant governor. Seven Aberdonians have been elected lieutenant governor.

There are elections at all levels. First elected sheriff, Aberdeen attorney Rob Ronayne (’78) lost the secretary of state race. Fouberg was elected to the state senate and “served as president pro tempore,” perhaps thanks to a little luck: “I recall winning some election on a coin toss.” Being “elected mayor of Pittsburgh,” was Tobin’s “first exposure to ‘politics’ and trying to build a coalition. It was fun, but intimidating.”

A citizen of Journalism City, Aberdeen Insider Editor Scott Waltman (’88) ran for mayor, but “I slept through the session during which we were supposed to give our speeches. Not the best campaign tactic.” Speaking of tactics, my son Dan Gallagher won a 2013 sheriff’s race by claiming to have killed Osama bin Laden.

A resident of Buffalo, Ronayne recalled an assembly when “we were being polled for our vote on something, perhaps a constitutional office nominee.” Announcing their vote to the gathering, he proclaimed they were from Buffalo, “home of the Buffalo chip!” Explaining the laugh he got, “That was the type of lowbrow humor that was well received at Boys State.” Teenage boys, go figure.

The Sunshine Scribe regularly reported on city ordinances and state laws passed at Boys State as well as party platforms. These swung between serious and not. Among the latter, one platform called for a free night off campus after the new governor’s banquet with a “12 PM” curfew. Presumably they meant midnight, 12 AM, unless they had an entirely different view of “night off.” One city required citizens to shout “Hail, Bob,” when entering a room. Waltman said Journalism City had “a fine for listening to Wham! I can’t remember if it was 25 or 50 cents.” Barry Manilow and Tiffany were also banned.

On the judicial side, Lovrien runs the trial court section. He lectures on law and administers the bar exam. Then, “We run four trials all with the same case,” he said. Local attorneys help the boys

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Allen “Al” Neuharth, founder of USA Today, attended Boys State. The Allen Neuharth Scholarship Award was named after him.

prepare. With Aberdeen attorney Roy Wise supervising his trial, Ronayne said, “I was an attorney for the defendant,” and obtained an acquittal by having “several citizens of our community” alibi the defendant. I was an assistant states attorney in a trial in which the defense offered as exculpatory evidence the defendant’s bisexuality. The overseeing local attorney interjected a point of law, “We call that a switch hitter.”

Zach Peterson (’95), partner at Richardson, Wyly, Wise, Sauck & Hieb, remembered the other Roncalli attendee got sick. Alternate Justin Wachs took his place and was subsequently selected to attend Boys Nation (see sidebar). Peterson admitted, “It’s possible (probable) that Justin took it a little more seriously.”

Waltman was sports editor for the Scribe. “I believe a mimeograph machine served as our press back then,” he said. “I’m not sure if Boys Staters read or smelled it more. It’s hard to forget that ink smell.” Lovrien was in Journalism City ten years later and noted that today here’s no daily newspaper anymore. “Now it’s all social media and YouTube.”

Besides the governmental work, there’s recreation, including swimming, basketball, softball, and tennis tournaments. “Our city won the tug-of-war,” Tobin recalled. They were “in the finals against Journalism City, which historically finished last. It was a mighty struggle, but in the end, we saved face and won.”

 

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Federalists Tom Browkaw, Bob Legvold, and John Moeller.

Operations

It takes many people every year to run Boys State. Johnson says several American Legion members as well as about 30 volunteer counselors, who live with the boys in their cities and counties. The weeklong volunteers “easily work 18 hours per day.” Another 30 or so come to present. Interestingly, many long-term volunteers were not Boys Staters themselves.

Johnson has been involved for 17 years. “When I was a junior at Northern, there was a call for volunteers,” he said. “So I decided to see what it was about. I embraced the program and saw the value of teaching kids about government.” He started as a counselor and has been camp director for eight years. “I was learning along with the boys,” he added. “I ran for City Council in 2013 based on what I’d learned from Boys State. It was a good experience to go back and share with the boys.”

Another participant is Northern State University. NSU Assistant Director of Admissions Operations Matthew Perreault has been a counselor since 2017. Also the Boys State archivist and NSU liaison, he’s only one part of Northern’s contributions, which starts with the $1 rent it charges for use of several campus buildings. Numerous NSU staff volunteer their time, such as to direct the Boys State band and choir. Even the Johnson Fine Arts Center was built with Boys State in mind. Johnson explained, “It was designed to house the senate and house of representatives in the red and blue rooms on either side of the main theater.”

 

The Boys’ Program

“The theme is that it’s the boys’ program,” Johnson noted. “We don’t try to interject anything from the world into the week.” A glance through the Sunshine Scribe bears that out. The focus was on

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Participants in Boys State are assigned to one of the two mythical political parties, Federalist and Nationalist, and reside in a specific city and county.

governmental processes. With the exception of attention to the threat of Communism, the news of the day rarely appeared in the Scribe, including the Korean War, the Civil Rights movement (in the eleventh Boys State in 1953, the first Black governor was elected), the Vietnam War, 9/11, or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Regarding war, each year a Memorial Day program recognizes Boys Staters who died in military service. The list includes two Aberdonians: James Kotsokas, a participant in the first Boys State, who died in World War II, and Daryl Summers, the first governor from Aberdeen, elected in 1959, who died in Vietnam.

Another subject excluded from the event was always news: girls. South Dakota’s American Legion Women’s Auxiliary launched Girls State in 1947 as a separate program (there has been at least one attempt to combine the programs, an unsuccessful 1976 complaint with the South Dakota Division of Human Rights). At Boys State, the only females the boys typically see are “high school girls who served the meals,” Siegel, Barnett & Schutz partner Rory King (’65) explained. “We always enjoyed the visual break from the monastic life.” The servers have been a focus since 1940 when the Sunshine Scribe started doing profiles. The attention was, well, about what you might expect.

Despite such deprivations, the program has impact. Boys State Director Gene Opbroek of Spearfish has volunteered for nearly 40 years since he was in the National Guard and was recruited by friends. He explained his commitment, “If you like seeing a change come around young men in a week, it kind of affects you and you keep coming back.” Lovrien sees it similarly, “On Tuesday, the boys seem grumpy, but by the end of the week, they’re engaged and active. It’s a four-day metamorphosis of not wanting to be there to being very involved.”

 

Looking Back

Overall, alumni have a range of opinions on their Boys State experiences. “This may sound a little cynical,” Peterson admitted, “but Boys State taught me early on that those running for office do not necessarily get there based on merit. My recollection was that the kids who garnered the most popular appeal would get the votes.”

From a different perspective, “Looking back, I wish I had been more assertive,” King said. “A good lesson for life: the more you put into it, the more you got out of it.” He added, “It was a better lesson in politics. To the assertive personalities go the spoils!”

More positively, Aberdeen Development Corporation CEO Mike Bockorny (’92), a native of Huron, observed, Boys State “introduced me to the political environment and how the process worked. Since this experience I have been interested in politics and have been educated and learned how to participate in the process.”

Several lawyers responded to my questions, but it’s hard to estimate Boys State’s impact on their career decision. Peterson had already shadowed Roy Wise as an eighth grader. Tom Cogley (’98) who came from Mitchell, “had no interest in a legal career in high school. My dad was a lawyer, and I was probably too busy proving that I was not like him.”

There were also friendships. Dr. Roger Werth (‘73) made several friends at Boys State, including one who was best man at his wedding. Attorney Lon Gellhaus (’66) “met a lot of classmates from different towns that I became friends with at NSU and later in law school at USD.” Most enthusiastically, Fouberg explained, “We had a great time!”

 

Looking Ahead

Today, Boys State has seen attendance decline from more than 600 in the 1980s. It was half that ten years ago, and it halved again in 2023 with 161 attendees, nearly the 1940 level (advance estimates for 2024 foresee a rebound). “Kids are pulled in so many directions” by jobs and sports, Lovrien observed. “We tell the boys they’re our best ambassadors and to tell their friends to apply.”

In Lord of the Flies, the boys elect the practical, charismatic boy as chief, but in time the aggressive boy, despite shirking a key responsibility and losing elections, wrests control by playing on fears, superstition and apathy. Violence waxes, and civilized behavior wanes. The book didn’t foreshadow my or anyone’s Boys State experience. Rather, the program may inoculate against the novel’s social collapse. Despite—or perhaps because of—cynical or unqualified candidates, knowingly ridiculous laws as well as more positive examples, one can hope understanding constitutional processes will make these young men attentive and responsive to risks, from the absurd to the existential.

Opbroek’s best memory occurred outside the model government activity. When a mom brought her paraplegic son to Boys State, she planned to stay, saying the boy always needed her help with daily activities. “I knew it wouldn’t work,” he told me. On the first day, as they walked from lunch, Opbroek saw the boy’s city mates taking turns pushing his wheelchair. When they turned to go to their next meeting, Mom stopped, but the boys continued. Catching up, Opbroek asked what happened. “They took him!” she said. He explained, “The boys took care of her son, helped him get dressed daily, and so on.” Though he had never given a public speech, he “did a great job” in an assembly. By the end, Mom had gone home, and the year’s governor drove the boy home. “The story shows how mature and responsible the boys are,” Opbroek concluded. “That brings you back every year.”

Like most things in life, Boys State is what you make it. If you want to have fun, you will. If you’re bored by it, you still might help keep things honest. If you try to learn something, you will and will likely carry it with you in some way. It’s more than just something for a college application. //

 

South Dakota Boys State Alumni

NFL medic Nathan Breske ’94

Governor Dennis Daugaard ‘70

Astronaut Charles Gemar ‘72

Senator Tim Johnson ’64

USA Today founder Al Neuharth ’41

Senator Larry Pressler ‘59

South Dakota Supreme Court Justice Mark Salter ’85

NFL scoring leader Adam Vinatieri ’90

 

Boys Nation is a next level program, a national “senate” composed of two attendees from each state. States select their senators according to their own system. In South Dakota, Boys State organizers interview candidates to make a selection. Twelve Aberdonians have attended Boys Nation.

Dick Thomas ‘47 (first Boys Nation)

Ben Phillips ‘49

Nelson Ellwood ‘57

Dallas Erdman ‘76

Eric Robinson ‘83

Matt Tobin ‘89

Justin Wachs ‘95

Tony Heiser ‘99

Larry Klipfel ‘04

Dylan Kessler ‘05

Richard Marmorstein ‘09

Dustin Hermansen ‘22