William J. Janklow, former S.D. governor and congressman, dies at 72


President George W. Bush and Republican candidate for a House seat, Gov. Bill Janklow raise their arms to the crowd during a rally on Oct. 31, 2002. Janklow, a flamboyant politician who left a lasting mark on South Dakota politics by serving four terms as governor but resigned as the state's congressman after causing a fatal traffic accident, died Jan. 12. He was 72. (SUSAN WALSH/AP)
January 12, 2012

William J. Janklow, 72, the flamboyant former governor of South Dakota who served half a term in the House of Representatives before resigning in the wake of a fatal traffic accident, died Jan. 12 at a hospice in Sioux Falls, S.D.

He had been hospitalized with brain cancer. His son, Russ Janklow, confirmed the death to the Associated Press.

For more than a quarter century, “Wild Bill” Janklow, a Republican, dominated South Dakota’s political landscape. His political rise began in 1974 with his election as the state’s attorney general. He served four energetic and controversial terms as governor before his election to Congress in 2002.

He resigned following an August 2003 traffic accident north of Sioux Falls in which he ran a stop sign and struck and killed a motorcyclist. The next year, a jury convicted him of manslaughter, and he was jailed for 100 days.

As a public figure, Mr. Janklow was compellingly quotable and a creative maker of headlines. He was known to have worn a bunny suit in public — the result of a prank by his daughter — and to have toted a machine gun in an aborted 1976 plan to rescue hostages held at the state capitol. He once described himself as the “best fat-man water skier in South Dakota.”

He once told a former state lawmaker in a heated exchange of letters: “My mom said I should never call a person a ‘Jerk’ in writing. Please send me your phone number.”

To People magazine in 1999, he said “I’m the toughest, most hard-nosed, right-wing conservative you’ve ever met.”

Behind the bluster, Mr. Janklow was a major political force. In a 1980 profile, the New York Times called him “intelligent, intense and articulate . . . [with] the energy of a brigade of ordinary mortals.”

His feats included converting a state college campus into a prison with vocational training. He also used prison labor to build affordable housing for senior citizens. He persuaded the legislature to change interest rate laws, a move that lured the Citibank credit card operation to the state. He presided over the linking of school classrooms to the Internet.

William John Janklow was born in Chicago on Sept. 13, 1939. He grew up in Flandreau, S.D., his mother’s home town, following the death of his father.

He dropped out of high school to join the Marine Corps. When he returned to South Dakota in 1960, he married Mary Dean Thom. She survives him, along with three children.

He received a law degree from the University of South Dakota in 1966. His first job after law school was in the legal aid program of the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

In seven years, he was said to have won acquittals of 30 American Indians accused of murder or manslaughter. Later, as a prosecutor for the state attorney general’s office, he acquired a reputation as a staunch opponent of Indian claims. He prosecuted 22 people, most of them associated with American Indian Movement, who were charged with rioting and arson in an Indian rights protest in 1973.

He ran for attorney general in 1974 and won with 66.7 percent of the vote. It was during his term as his state’s top law enforcement officer that the machine gun incident happened.

Working at home in 1976 on the Bicentennial Fourth of July, Mr. Janklow heard that a gunman had entered the state capitol and taken hostages. Believing some of them to be his secretaries, he seized an automatic weapon left from his Marine Corps days and rushed to the scene.

After being told that his secretaries were not among the hostages, he decided to let the police handle the situation.

“No drama,” he said later. “My machine gun days are over.”

In 1978 Republican leaders urged him to run for governor. He won with 56 percent of the vote. In 1982 he was reelected with a victory margin of 71 percent.

Barred by state law from serving more than two consecutive terms as governor, he ran in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in 1986, but lost to incumbent Jim Abdnor. Eight years later, he won his third term as governor, and he was elected to a fourth term in 1998.

He cut property taxes, built a new women’s prison and he had prisoners laying fiber optic lines. His detractors said he was a bully and domineering. His supporters said he got things done.

Mr. Jankow also admitted that he had a reputation for driving too fast. On Jan. 23, 2004, in a Flandreau court room, a judge sentenced him to 100 days in jail for speeding through a stop sign and running over 55-year-old Randy Scott on a motorcycle.

“I understand,” the former governor and congressman said. “I killed somebody. I can’t be punished more than I’m punishing myself.”

He was contrite in court. But after serving his sentence he wanted his driver’s license back, which had been suspended on his conviction.

As governor, he told the state supreme court, “When I was racing to fires in the Black Hills, or storms in Herrick or floods in Watertown . . . I was a hero for getting there in a hurry.”

His license was reinstated.