SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Former South Dakota Gov. Walter Dale Miller, who stepped in as the state's leader in 1993 after a plane crash killed his predecessor, died Monday night. He was 89.
Miller served as the state's 29th governor through 1995, taking the oath of office on April 20, 1993, a day after the plane carrying Gov. George Mickelson and seven others went down in eastern Iowa.
South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard said Miller was a friend who assumed the governorship at a time of tragedy and sorrow.
"He provided a steady hand as our state mourned the loss of Gov. Mickelson," Daugaard said in a statement. "Through his long career in public office, Walt worked hard and put South Dakota first."
Mickelson's son, state Rep. Mark Mickelson, said the 20-year veteran of the legislature was a strong leader and the perfect man to take over from his father.
"Walter was a steady hand during a very difficult time," Mickelson said Tuesday.
Miller was born near the towns of Viewfield and New Underwood on Oct. 5, 1925, and spent his life on his family's ranch.
The tall, lanky cowboy epitomized the western South Dakota rancher, Mickelson said, and Miller almost never appeared in public without his cowboy boots. A toothpick often dangled from Miller's mouth, and when he ventured outside he completed the look with a western-style sport coat and a cowboy hat.
After attending the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, Miller ran the 7,000-acre family ranch and was president of Dakota National Life Insurance Co. from 1970 to 1985.
Miller was a prominent Republican member of the state House of Representatives from 1967 through 1986, and he's the only person in state history to serve as speaker, speaker pro tempore, majority leader, assistant majority leader and majority whip. Mickelson said the House was in good hands with Miller and Joe Barnett from Aberdeen at the helm.
"They were institutions and they ran the House," he said. "And it worked well."
Attorney General Marty Jackley, a fellow Meade County native who had served as Miller's business lawyer, described Miller as a strong, passionate leader who was honest and direct.
"He said what he meant, and meant what he said," he said.
Miller was instrumental in Jackley's decision to go into public service, and Jackley continued to seek Miller's counsel when he took on the role of state attorney general for advice on how to navigate the waters of running for statewide office, meeting key players and attending Republican conventions.
"That was what his leadership quality was," Jackley said. "He would give you advice, and then irrespective of your decision he would help you achieve that."
When George Mickelson won the 1986 gubernatorial race, he made Miller the state's first full-time lieutenant governor and appointed him chairman of a number of task forces. Miller at that time said he had no political ambitions and only wanted to help make the Mickelson administration a success.
But all that changed six years later when Mickelson was killed in the plane crash. Within months of the crash, Miller decided to seek his own term as governor in the 1994 election but lost in the GOP primary to Bill Janklow, who went on to win another term as governor after previously serving eight years in that role.
Miller and his first wife, Mary, who died in 1989, had three daughters and one son. On the Fourth of July 1993, Miller married Pat Caldwell, who had worked as executive assistant to Miller in the lieutenant governor's office for about five years.