For 16 years, Roger McKellips of Alcester served in the South Dakota Senate. Born Jan. 26, 1923, the banker was in his first term in the Senate in 1977 when he decided to run for governor.
He defeated the lieutenant governor, Harvey Wollman of Hitchcock, in the June 1978 primary election for the Democratic nomination. The results: McKellips 34,160 votes; Wollman 32,690; and John Bohr 2,743. (Anybody out there remember him?)
McKellips strung together big totals in a handful of I-29 counties in southeastern South Dakota. He clobbered Wollman in Lincoln 1,374-180; Minnehaha 6,147-3,108; and Union 1,861-94. (You read that right.)
McKellips faced the Republican primary winner, Bill Janklow of Pierre, in the November 1978 general election. Meanwhile the three-term Democratic governor, Dick Kneip, had resigned from office to be a U.S. ambassador. Wollman rose to governor but wouldn’t be on the November ballot.
Janklow defeated McKellips 147,116 votes to 112,679.
That was despite Democrats, in a rare event, actually outnumbered Republicans in voter registration for the 1978 general election. The totals were 193,345 Democrats; 191,766 Republicans; and 35,707 others.
McKellips wasn’t able to hold together his southeastern base. He won Lincoln 3,095-2,347 and Union 3,382-1,271. But Janklow captured Minnehaha 19,684-16,512.
Janklow’s victory began the longest period in South Dakota history that Republicans have held the governor’s office, continuing through the state’s current chief executive, Dennis Daugaard.
McKellips came back to the Capitol as a state senator in the next election. He was the Democratic assistant leader in the 1981-82 term. In 1983 he rose to Democratic Senate leader. He held the top post through the end of his career in 1994.
Roger McKellips died last Friday. His burial is this Saturday. Gov. Daugaard has asked that flags fly at half-staff at the state Capitol that day. It is a fitting final honor.