By BRIAN BAKST and KRISTI EATON Associated Press
The Salem News
---- — SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Mourners from near and far paused yesterday before the flag-draped coffin of former Sen. George McGovern to pay their respects to the liberal Democrat whose spectacularly failed 1972 bid for president helped reshape his party and who later championed the fight against global hunger.
McGovern died Sunday at age 90. His funeral is today.
Vice President Joe Biden, who served in the Senate with McGovern in the 1970s and early 1980s, was among those expected to attend yesterday’s public viewing and prayer service. Most of those who showed up early at the First United Methodist Church were friends, neighbors, constituents or admirers of McGovern.
Among them was Burton Barnard, a 68-year-old from western Wisconsin. After driving 300 miles, he was toward the front of the line when the church opened for a four-hour viewing period.
“There’s not that many people I would drive that far for,” Barnard said. “McGovern was a deeply moral and principled leader for us in the 60s and 70s.”
Francis and Nancy McGowan of Sioux Falls, both retired, said they attended the viewing because they held McGovern in high esteem because he cared for people.
“We’re thankful for his service,” Nancy McGowan said. “The world is a better place because he was here, not only for his wisdom as a politician but also for his caring and feeding of the hungry.”
Some mourners sat down in the pews after filing past McGovern’s coffin, and reflected as photos of McGovern flashed on screens. Some showed him during his 1972 campaign, others in his World War II Army uniform and others with his wife Eleanor, who died five years ago. One showed him hunched in a field with the words “Prairie Populist” in a corner.
Outside the church, a couple dozen members of the Patriot Guard stood on freshly fallen snow next to U.S. flags flapping in a cold wind. They were there to honor McGovern’s World War II-era military service even though he was defined more by his anti-war stances later in life.
Jim Lentsch, a retired sheriff from Salem, S.D., referred to the senator simply as “George,” a testament to the personal connection the small-state politician had with his former constituents.
“I grew up in South Dakota, I guess l’ve known him for years,” Lentsch said, applauding McGovern’s commitment to society’s most needy and dedication to the college in his native Mitchell, S.D.
Thelma Moberly began to cry as she walked past the casket. Moberly, 85, and her husband, Richard, were good friends with the McGovern family. When Richard Moberly died in 1995, George McGovern called Thelma from Washington to express his condolences.
“I just thought that was a beautiful gesture of kindness and caring,” she said.