Miller remembered as a family man and for statesmanship
South Dakota’s 29th governor, Walter Dale Miller, was a man of strong faith who dedicated his life to South Dakota as a faithful public servant.
Governor Miller was born Oct. 5, 1925, to Walter A. and Kathryn (Judson) Miller in the ranch house at Viewfield in Meade County, S.D. Governor Miller grew up on the family ranch and attended Red Top Country School through the eighth grade. He graduated from New Underwood High School in 1943. Governor Miller attended South Dakota School of Mines and Technology later returning to the family ranch.
While always a man of the land, Governor Miller also understood the need to give back to one’s community. He was a long time member and supporter of the Viewfield Community Church and Plaza Boulevard Wesleyan Church. He served in several leadership positions in The Gideon’s International. He was a founding member of the Sunshine Bible Academy and was the founder and President of Dakota National Life Insurance Company. He had more years of experience in elected office than any other South Dakota governor. He served for 20 years as a school board member and was a leader in the Republican Party. Governor Miller joined the state legislature in Pierre where he served in the state House of Representatives for 20 years. He is the only person in the history of the state to serve as majority leader, assistant majority leader, majority whip, speaker of the house, speaker pro tempore, and president of the Senate. As a legislator, Miller was known as someone who remained loyal to his principles, but also was willing to compromise when it was the right thing to do. He was known as being able to work well with lawmakers from both parties.
In 1986, gubernatorial candidate George S. Mickelson selected Miller to be his running mate. After the Mickelson-Miller team was elected that November, Miller made history when he became the state’s first full-time lieutenant governor in January 1987. For more than six years, the two worked together on important issues to move this state forward. The duo was re-elected to a second term in 1990. Miller will be forever known as the governor who guided South Dakota through one of its darkest hours. He became governor on April 20, 1993, one day after Governor Mickelson died with seven others in a crash of the state airplane. Miller was the first lieutenant governor in South Dakota’s history to succeed to the governorship upon the death of his predecessor. At the age of 67, he was also the oldest governor in state history.
Demonstrating the leadership skills that led Governor Mickelson to pick him as his running mate, Governor Miller took the reins of state government during a difficult time. He led the state through the sudden and tragic loss of Governor Mickelson, and secured funding for the creation of the Fighting Stallions Memorial. He ended a riot at the state penitentiary, in which more than 200 inmates took control and set fire to prison buildings, without loss of life or giving in to the inmates’ demands. He responded to historic flooding on the Missouri River and its tributaries in 1993. And when the South Dakota Supreme Court declared video lottery to be unconstitutional, Governor Miller responded to the sudden budget shortfall with $28 million in emergency budget cuts and the use of emergency reserves. Throughout his life, Governor Miller cared for people, serving as an example for many young people. While he could pick up the telephone and call a president, he was most happy talking to a fellow rancher or the waitress in a restaurant.
Governor Miller left state office in 1995. In later years, he tended to the family’s ranch while also residing in Fort Pierre. He was the first executive director of the Casey Tibbs Rodeo Center in Fort Pierre and also worked in the real estate business for a time. Governor Miller also remained active in Republican politics, mentoring many of those who are office holders today.
While he always enjoyed ranching and politics, the two bedrocks of Governor Miller’s life were his religious faith and his family. Miller married Mary Randall in 1943, and they had four children, Nancy Jahnke, Karey Albers, Walter R. “Randy” Miller, and Renee Johansen. Mary died in 1989. In 1993, Governor Miller married Patricia Caldwell, and became the stepfather to her two children, Cade Caldwell and Rebecca Caldwell Bauer. His marriage to Pat on July 4, 1993, made him the only governor to be married while in office.
Governor Miller died Sept. 28, 2015, at the age of 89. His last trip was to Texas, where he visited the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. Grateful to have shared in the life of a good man is his wife, Pat; his children, Nancy (Pete) Jahnke, Karey (Rick) Albers, Walter R. “Randy” (Mary) Miller, Renee (Aaron) Johansen; 15 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren.
Governor Miller was preceded into death by his parents; his first wife, Mary; his brother, Glen Miller; and sisters, Mary Ellen Miller and Evelyn Forney.
Public viewing was in the Rotunda at the State Capitol in Pierre Monday, Oct. 5, 2015. It was followed by a memorial ceremony with Reverend David B. Zellmer officiating.
Funeral services were Wednesday, Oct. 7, at Calvary Lutheran Church with Reverend Harold Delbridge and Reverend David Zellmer officiating.
Memorials have been established to benefit the Trail of Governors Foundation; S.D. State Historical Society and the Brazil Inland Mission.