MITCHELL, S. D. - Everyone in South Dakota knows what this town is famous for: the Corn Palace, a wildly designed arena decorated with murals made from native grasses and corn cobs. Mitchell also boasts a museum of Indian and pioneer life, a doll museum and a hugely popular Cabela's outdoor-goods store.
What few people here mention or even seem to care about is that Mitchell is home to one of the most prominent Americans of the last half-century, George McGovern. Despite a long lifetime on the national and international stage, Mr. McGovern is not a hero to all of his neighbors.
There are various reasons for this antipathy, but in the end, most of it boils down to resentment over his staunch opposition to the Vietnam War a generation ago. Few figures were as closely identified with the antiwar cause as Mr. McGovern. Now 81, he still evokes extreme emotions.
"A lot of folks don't like him," said Clair Thompson, a 68-year-old Navy veteran who was sipping a beer at the V. F. W. hall here on a recent afternoon. "He's next to a communist."
As a new generation comes of age, however, anger over Mr. McGovern's politics is starting to fade. Dakota Wesleyan University, where he taught history and political science in the 1950's, plans to build a museum and library dedicated to his legacy. No ground has been broken, but a $12.5 million fund-raising campaign is more than halfway toward its goal. It is a giant step for a town of fewer than 15,000 people where no street or plaza bears the McGovern name, and no sign reminds people that he has called Mitchell home for almost all of his life.
GEORGE WAS RIGHT
Despite a lifetime on the national stage, George McGovern is not a hero to all the residents of his hometown, Mitchell, S.D., whose most famous site is Mitchell Corn Place. (Dave Eggen/Inertia for the New York Times)
"In the minds of people around the world, he's taken on the role of a senior statesman, and it never ceases to amaze me how many people revere him," said Greg Christy, a vice president of Dakota Wesleyan, who is overseeing the library project. "But you cannot get away from the fact that there are people who will not forgive him for his stance on Vietnam. It's a shame that he's never been honored in his hometown. That's why this project is especially important."
Mr. Christy acknowledged that the university was interested in building the library partly to increase its own profile. Others hope it will tempt more tourists to turn off nearby Interstate 90.
"A lot of the future of tourism is in the baby boomers," said Bryan Hisel, executive director of the Mitchell Area Chamber of Commerce. "An older and healthier generation is going to have time for travel and leisure in retirement, and this is one of the things they would enjoy."
The George and Eleanor McGovern Library and Center for Public Service will house many of Mr. McGovern's papers and also promote university programs intended to draw students toward public service. Its most visible face will be a museum with exhibits tracing Mr. McGovern's career.
The exhibits are to begin with his Depression-era childhood on the South Dakota prairie, continue through his service as a B-24 bomber pilot in World War II, and recount his early decision to devote his life to fighting hunger. He was the first director of the Food for Peace program in the early 1960's, and decades later became the United States' representative to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization.
Later exhibits will show how Mr. McGovern built South Dakota's Democratic Party from almost nothing, was elected to the House of Representatives in 1956 and the Senate in 1962, and then found a new cause after President Lyndon B. Johnson decided to send hundreds of thousands of soldiers to fight in South Vietnam. In 1965, after touring South Vietnam, Mr. McGovern declared himself "ready not merely to dissent, but to crusade - to join peace marches, sign petitions, lecture across the nation, appear on television, to do whatever might persuade the Congress and the American people to stop the horror."
That is precisely what he did. As the country became deeply polarized, he broke with the political establishment and became an uncompromising critic of the Vietnam War. Millions of Americans embraced him as a prophet. At least as many reviled him as a near-traitor.
In 1972 the Democratic Party nominated Mr. McGovern for president. He lost in a landslide to President Richard M. Nixon, failing to carry even his home state.
In what may have been an even more stinging rebuke, South Dakota voters turned Mr. McGovern out of office in 1980. Some voted against him because of his liberal politics, others because they believed he had forgotten his South Dakota roots and constituents. He responded by spending little time in the state that had rejected him, instead traveling the world in his renewed campaign against hunger.
"The Vietnam issue, which I guess I owned more than anyone, was very divisive," Mr. McGovern said in a telephone interview. "You were either 100 percent for it or 100 percent against it. Now almost everyone thinks it was a mistake. What I hear all the time is, 'George was right, George was right.' There's been a softening of the old partisan division."
Mr. McGovern said he expected the new library here to be "state of the art, the best in South Dakota or the region." He said its exhibits would "give both a very clear understanding of what I've been about and an explanation of the issues I care most about."
Past efforts to honor Mr. McGovern here have fallen flat. While he was still in the Senate, some of his friends urged that the tiny local airport be given his name, but they met stiff opposition and were able only to have the terminal building, which is now closed, named after him. Later, they failed to save the house in which he lived while teaching at Dakota Wesleyan.
"We couldn't get many people interested, and even now I think most of the funding for this library will be coming from the East," said Rube Adam, a lifelong Republican who never voted for Mr. McGovern but tried to save his house for historical reasons. "If they get it built, I think it will attract mainly people from far away. People here respect him, but as for holding him in high esteem, no."
Three years ago, Dakota Wesleyan offered Mr. and Mrs. McGovern a home on campus, and they immediately accepted. He now spends about four months a year here, and has said he will spend more when the library opens, perhaps even returning to the university faculty. His shelves overflow with books, and although portraits of Lincoln and Jefferson dominate his study, there is also a picture of Ho Chi Minh, the Communist leader whose troops finally forced the United States to pull out of Vietnam in 1975.
"Time does tend to soften old political grudges," said Noel Hamiel, the publisher of Mitchell's newspaper, The Daily Republic. "I've talked to a lot of people who think the McGovern Library will be good for Mitchell and good for South Dakota. When it comes to pass, I'm sure the community will find it positive. They'll point to it and say, 'That good man came from here.' Some little bit of pride will go along with that."
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