My Friends

I snapped this picture at the Brookings Country Club May 7, 2014.

From left, Chuck Cecil, Keith Jensen ’56 and Walt Conahan.

From left, Chuck Cecil, Keith Jensen ’56 and Walt Conahan.

The casual reader might grin as they see three old guys. For me, I not only see my friends but also the solid bedrock of South Dakota State University. Each of them a former BMOC—Big Man On Campus—and all three returning to their beloved alma mater and leaving a significant mark. Just for the record, they are all SDSU journalism graduates, military veterans and cancer survivors, too.

Chuck Cecil was born at home in Wessington Springs in 1932 and grew up in Rapid City. After serving four years in the United States Navy, he enrolled at State in 1955. He thought he wanted to be a veterinarian but soon discovered he had to “reach into the backside of a cow and pull things out.” Chuck opted for journalism and his career was set. Following a brief stint in state government at the behest of Gov. Ralph Herseth, he headed for the Watertown Public Opinion. In 1965, he landed at SDSU, where he held three positions—director of development, director of university relations and assistant to the president—all at the same time.

He left SDSU in 1987 and published 10 weekly newspapers. Chuck has written 20 books after the age of 65. Twenty! Most people are happy to write one. A hundred years from now people will be celebrating the life of Chuck Cecil for recording the history of this region. Count on it.

Keith Jensen is the original Energizer Bunny. Since birth, the Lake Preston native has always been in constant motion. Graduating from SDSU in 1956, he spent a dozen years in the newspaper business working in Madison, Phoenix and Watertown. He then proved his love of SDSU in 1971 by volunteering to fly his airplane around South Dakota to lobby in the fight against the legislative effort to move all engineering programs to the School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City. He was rewarded by becoming the alumni director at SDSU, a position he held until 1980.

After running U.S. Rep. Jim Abdnor’s successful campaign to unseat Sen. George McGovern in 1980, he headed the South Dakota Newspaper Association from 1980 to 1996.

Keith might hold the record for garnering the most speeding tickets for anyone ever associated with SDSU. One day, he was ticketed by the same highway patrolman twice outside Miller when going back-and-forth to Pierre on SDSU business. When Keith dies—and I hope that is many years from now—the attending physician will note that he has a heart in the shape of a cowbell. Nobody loves this place more. By the way, he was the best alumni director in the history of SDSU.

Walt Conahan is one of the most positive people I’ve ever met in my life. It’s a joy to be in his company.

A native of Leola, he holds the distinction of being only one of two individuals ever to have been editor of the SDSU Collegian and president of the student body. Add to that, he was the first-ever Weary Wil, the symbol of Hobo Day.

Walt’s father died in 1954. Upon graduating from SDSU in 1955, he returned to Leola to help his mother run the family restaurant but within a few months, South Dakota Rep. Harold Lovre called and asked him to come to Washington, D.C., to work in his office.

His dear mother realized the importance of the opportunity and decided to sell the restaurant so her son could pursue his dream. The transient nature of the political world saw Walt working in various capacities during the following 22 years, including stints with Sen. Karl Mundt and Rep. Jim Abdnor. In 1977, SDSU President Sherwood Berg’s office convinced him to become the first full-time director of the South Dakota State University Foundation.

During his tenure from 1977 to 1991, the assets for the SDSU Foundation increased from $1 million to $13 million. That’s saying something.

So, dear reader, you might look at the picture and note three old guys smiling back at you. I see something else. Anyone in the construction business will tell you that before you set a foundation, you need to pour a proper concrete footing. As for SDSU, these guys are the footing and I don’t want them to be forgotten with all the remarkable things that are happening on campus today. They did their jobs remarkably well and made a huge difference.

And, we are all the better for it.

V.J. Smith ‘78

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