State's youngest governor, WW II pilot dies at 87
Joe Foss carried himself with the unerring bearing of a compass and lived a plain-spoken life as open as the wide Pacific skies where he became an American hero.
Shooting down 26 Japanese fighters was remarkable.
Serving as South Dakota's youngest governor was distinguishing, and being honored with a statue in the lobby of the Sioux Falls Regional Airport is impressive.
A resume that included heading up a professional football league and hosting outdoors TV shows made him enviable to men.
The most notable thing about Foss, however, as he takes his place in history after his death Wednesday at age 87, is that there are so few unanswered questions about him. What you saw is what you got.
"I've lived in Pierre my whole life," says Gov.-elect Mike Rounds. "The governors who lived here were part of the community. Joe Foss was one of those individuals about whom there was no second guessing. He was beyond reproach. He was truly a class act."
Foss died in a hospital near his Scottsdale, Ariz., home. He spent the last month there after he suffered cerebral bleeding and collapsed before making a public appearance in Beaverton, Mich., in October.
Foss first wrote his name widely across the public consciousness in the trying days early in World War II. Between October 1942 and January 1943 at Guadalcanal, Foss, the executive officer of Marine Fighting Squadron 121, known to its members as Joe's Flying Circus, shot down a confirmed 26 Japanese planes and possibly several others. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, appeared on the cover of Life Magazine and led his boyhood hero, Charles Lindbergh - a civilian airplane design consultant at the time - into unauthorized combat missions against the Japanese.
In an interview long after the war, Foss shrugged off that rules breach.
"If you're qualified, I don't care where you came from," he says. "Doesn't bother this cowboy."
Foss was born April 17, 1915, on a farm near Sioux Falls and almost immediately turned his eyes skyward.
"I can't remember a time when I didn't want to fly" is the opening sentence in his 1992 autobiography, "A Proud American."
Foss graduated from Washington High School and attended Sioux Falls College and Augustana College before transferring to the University of South Dakota, where he and fellow aviation-minded classmates persuaded university officials to establish a civilian aeronautics administration course.
Persuading people apparently came easily to him.
"Joe was liked by everyone. Liking Joe was no big deal. He was a man-about-campus. Even when he was a senior and I was a lowly freshman, he was very nice to me and friendly," Beryl Ritz of Sioux Falls remembers.
His ability to charm Vermillion held up over six decades. USD President Jim Abbott remembers a dinner with Foss several years ago, when Foss had returned to campus to take part in a Farber Center conference.
"He was a great storyteller," Abbott says. "He had such an interesting life. One moment he would be talking about being on a quiz show with Tom Brokaw, and the next moment he was talking about Madame Chiang Kai-shek at the Waldorf Towers in New York, where he lived when he was commissioner of the American Football League."
Foss was featured prominently in Tom Brokaw's book "The Greatest Generation."
"He had a hero's swagger but a winning smile to go with his plain talk and movie-star looks," Brokaw wrote. "Joe Foss was larger than life, and his heroics in the skies over the Pacific were just the beginning of a journey that would take him to places far from that farm with no electricity and not much hope north of Sioux Falls."
Larry Ritz of Sioux Falls met Foss after the war and helped him in his successful race for governor in 1954.
"I just thought he was a good, honest, humble person, and I wouldn't have to worry about giving him the key to the state," Ritz says of his decision to help in the race. Another benefit of the campaign was just hanging around with Foss, a Republican.
"He would sit there in the chat sessions, smoking a big cigar, hoisting a libation, and he told stories," Ritz recalls. "He had a lot of war stories. He told about being in the water when he had a plane shot out from under him. He was a great storyteller."
Ritz's enduring image of Foss is "kind of leaning on a podium, maybe he had a toothpick in his mouth, and he told you how it was. Whatever he said, he believed in. That was my friend Joe."
In 1999, Foss celebrated his 84th birthday in Sioux Falls at a fund-raiser for the Easter Seal Society. Foss, whose daughter Cheryl was born with cerebral palsy, bluntly told those at the fund-raiser that before her birth, he was uncomfortable around people with disabilities.
"I never would have touched them with a 10-foot pole. I was uneasy around them until the war, and I saw the things that happened to people," he says.
With his typical head-on approach to challenges, Foss helped raise $18 million as chairman of the Easter Seal Society forerunner, the National Society for Crippled Children and Adults. He announced to the group in Sioux Falls that he was not pleased with the organization's name change.
"Crippled people are crippled. They should not have to apologize and call it some daisy-picking name," he says.
Foss is linked with another World War II air hero from South Dakota, George McGovern. Following his second two-year term as governor in 1958, Foss unsuccessfully challenged McGovern for his congressional seat in the former First District.
"He was a gentleman in that race," McGovern says. "He and I completed that campaign better friends than we began. It is sad he couldn't have had a few more years."
Sportsman & Trailblazer
Foss played football as a reserve lineman at USD. But his real contribution to the game came after he left the governor's office. Between 1959 and 1966, he served as the first commissioner of the wide-open AFL. In that capacity, he helped bring about the sharing of TV revenues among all league franchises that is now the standard in professional football, and he oversaw the AFL's merger with the National Football League.
He also pioneered outdoors broadcasting, serving as host of ABC's seminal outdoors show "American Sportsman" from 1962-1965 and his own syndicated series "The Outdoorsman, Joe Foss" 1966-1974.
Living out his deeply held regard for the Second Amendment, Foss served as president of the National Rifle Association from 1987-1990 and subsequently continued on its governing board. He was reappointed to a three-year term in 2000.
All of that increased his trove of stories, and it reconfirmed his belief in straight talk. In his autobiography, he recounted his decision to give sportswriters immediate access to locker rooms after games.
"I just laid the pipe to them, and some of the coaches were pretty hot about it at first," he wrote of opposition to that decision. He likened it to allowing war correspondents access to pilots in World War II.
"I gave the war correspondents permission to climb up on the airplane wings after we flew back from a mission because I wanted the news to be hot and just exactly what it was," Foss wrote.
"American Sportsman" gave him such adventures as tiger hunting in India and lion hunting in Africa. But he broke with the show because he felt its writers were denigrating hunting.
"The writers really knew nothing about the great outdoors and hunting: they were more familiar with dog tracks and horse races and professional sports," Foss wrote.
His widely varied political and professional career enriched his life. But it also cost Foss a marriage. He wed high school sweetheart June Shakstad in 1942. After having four children, they separated in 1959. Foss married Donna "DiDi" Wild Hall in 1967.
Beryl Ritz was a close friend of Foss' first wife.
"He was a wonderful husband to June because he had a real good sense of humor," she recalls. "He would tease her in a very friendly way, and she loved it.
"But one thing happened that was very sad. His work took him away, and he was home very little. He wanted June to come with him, but it wasn't possible for her. She had Cheryl, who had cerebral palsy, and she felt she belonged here in Sioux Falls so Cheryl could go to the Crippled Children's Hospital school.
"That did not do well for their marriage."
The divorce "broke June's heart," Ritz says. She says her friend died several years later from complications of diabetes.
That shows Foss was not immune from the trials of life. But his fundamental optimism and self-confidence guided him through such tragedies, friends say. In recent years, those who knew Foss knew him as a man of strong religious convictions.
"He was active in the Campus Crusade for Christ, and that is what brought him back here to South Dakota most often," says Gordon Fosness of Sioux Falls, regional director for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
"I heard him say once that he was bobbing up and down in the Pacific Ocean and he thought he would have received Christ and began praying, but he didn't," Fosness says.
"He was very outspoken about things, very wholesome, spoke from the heart."
Foss' wife, DiDi, was the inspiration in his spiritual life.
"She had a very strong impact on him," Fosness says.
Foss writes about undergoing a religious rebirth during a year in which he slowly recovered from inadvertently poisoning himself while bird hunting by absently chewing on corn stalks that had been sprayed with an arsenic compound.
"In my eyes, he is an outstanding man," Beryl Ritz says. "In later years, the way he loved the Lord, he wanted to tell everybody he could about his experiences. He cared about people."
Tributes to Foss flow freely.
"Joe Foss will be remembered more than anything as an absolute, courageous fighter for freedom," Rep.-elect. Bill Janklow says. "He helped form the Air National Guard in Sioux Falls and was their first commander."
Larry Ritz was co-chairman of the committee that raised the money for the statue of Foss at the airport. Testament to the high regard in Foss was held comes from the fact that besides raising money for the statue, "we asked everybody to be generous, and we said the excess would be put in a scholarship fund," Ritz says. More than $100,000 was raised, endowing six college scholarships. Applicants must write essays about personal values and patriotism. Ritz says many of those essays refer to Foss "relative to his being a hero. The writers say ‘he was my grandpa's hero' or ‘he was my father's hero.' "
Sylvia Henkin of Sioux Falls led the effort to get the statue of Foss at the airport moved from a corner to the center of the terminal.
"It was just ridiculous where they placed it. It was disrespectful," says Henkin. "Now when you walk in there, you see a Sioux Falls boy, a regular guy, a national hero."
Mike Marnach, airport manager, says the bronze statue of Foss dominating the airport lobby draws regular attention from travelers.
"People come by and take pictures by it. People come by and read the plaque. People do pay a lot of attention to the statue of Joe," he says.
As recently as last month, Marnach says, the airport board dealt with the statue, directing him to see that a rope is put around it to prevent people from sitting on the pedestal. The concept of keeping people at a distance, however, is probably anathema to the gregarious Foss, who is survived by his wife, two children and two stepchildren.
"He will go down in history as one of our greatest leaders, one of our most respected as well," Rounds says.
"He was one of those special gifts, a treasure a state is blessed with on a very rare basis. He was a war hero. At the same time, he was a politician and a statesman.
"He was very much a strong believer in our way of life, our rights, our freedoms and our liberties.
"You remember Joe Foss as being for the American way."
Significant events in the life of Joe Foss
1915: born near Sioux Falls
1934: began college in Sioux Falls but dropped out to help on farm
1937: first flying lesson
1939: enlisted in South Dakota National Guard and entered the University of South Dakota in Vermillion
1940: soloed, graduated from USD and accepted appointment as aviation cadet in Marine Corps
1942: married June Shakstad
1942: arrived at Guadalcanal; awarded Distinguished Flying Cross, presented by Adm. William F. Halsey; recorded 23 air victories in first six weeks of combat
1943: awarded Congressional Medal of Honor by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. One of 10 Outstanding American Award Jaycees
1944: promoted to major
1946: resigned from Marine Corp Reserve to accept appointment as lieutenant colonel in South Dakota Air National Guard, which he helped found
1948: elected to South Dakota House of Representatives
1950: promoted to colonel, South Dakota Air National Guard
1951: activated for Korean conflict
1953: promoted to brigadier general, South Dakota Air National Guard
1955: took office as governor of South Dakota, the youngest ever, at age 39
1955: Joe Foss Field named in Sioux Falls, dedicated by Adm. Halsey
1956-1961: President of National Society of Crippled Children and Adults
1956: honored on Ralph Edwards' TV program "This is Your Life"
1956: re-elected to second term as governor
1959: separated from June Shakstad Foss
1959-1966: served as Commissioner of the American Football League
1961: elected president of Air Force Association (later chairman
of the board)
1962: began three-year run as host of ABC-TV's "American Sportsman"
1966-1974: starred in weekly syndicated television series "The Outdoorsman: Joe Foss"
1967: married Donna Wild Hall
1968: named chairman of Veterans for Nixon
1972-1978: served as director of public affairs, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines
1975: retired as a brigadier general from Air Force
1978: named member of President's Council on Physical Fitness
1979: named member of White House Conference on Handicapped Individuals
1980: awarded Outstanding American Award by the Los Angeles Philanthropic Foundation
1983: named International Chairman of Here's Life World. Received National Veteran Award for 1983
1984: inducted into Aviation Hall of Fame
1987-1990: served as president of the National Rifle Association
1990: named founding chairman of the American Patriot Fund - Landing Zone Foss established in Saudi Arabia (during Desert Storm campaign)
1991: inducted into South Dakota Aviation Hall of Fame. Published "Top Guns: America's Fighter Aces Tell Their Stories" (with Matthew Brennan)
1992: Inducted into Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame
Compiled by Patti Curry and Denise D. Tucker
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Peter Harriman at 575-3615 or pharrima@ argusleader.com.
The Associated Press
Cowboy and hero Foss remembered in Arizona service
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - Joe Foss, a former South Dakota governor and famed World War II pilot, was remembered here Thursday as a cowboy and a hero.
About 1,800 people crowded into Scottsdale Bible Church for a memorial service in honor of Foss, who died at age 87 on Jan. 1. Foss had suffered an aneurysm in October. He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington.
"Joe Foss was a true, genuine national hero," said Gen. William Nyland, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps.
Former President George Bush also described Foss as a hero in a letter sent to memorial organizers.
"As a young naval aviator in the Pacific, Joe Foss was not only my hero, but the hero of every Marine and Navy pilot who served in the war. ... The whole Bush family thought the world of him," Bush said.
In 1943, a Life magazine cover had proclaimed Foss "America's No. 1 Ace." He led a Marine air unit that shot down 72 Japanese planes. Foss downed 26 planes himself, tying the U.S. aerial record set by Eddie Rickenbacker in World War I.
After the war, Foss, a Republican, served in the South Dakota Legislature for five years before his 1955-59 term as governor. He went on to head the American Football League, which began play in 1960 to challenge the National Football League. Foss held the post until 1966, and the leagues merged in 1970. From 1988 to 1990, Foss was National Rifle Association president.
Bill Bright, the founder of the Christian ministry Campus Crusade for Christ, described Foss as a true cowboy.
"John Wayne was an actor," he said. "Joe was real."
Foss is survived by his wife, two children and two stepchildren.
By CHUCK RAASCH
Gannett News Service
He 'takes his place among heroes'
ARLINGTON, Va. - Joe Foss was laid to rest on a gentle slope of heroes Tuesday, surrounded by family, Marines and the memories of one of World War II's fiercest fighters.
The decorated Marine fighter pilot, ex-South Dakota governor and first commissioner of the American Football League died Jan. 1 in Scottsdale, Ariz. His cremated remains were buried in Arlington National Cemetery with Marine Corps honors.
A gentle snow fell on the cedars, oaks and pines that stand guard over thousands of gravestones on Arlington's hills. The snow cloaked everything in a soft white glow that grounded the traditional jet flyover usually accorded military heroes.
But the snow also enveloped the cemetery in a surreal peace - a gentle memorial for a hard-charging man who "flew with the eagles," in the words of Gen. William Nyland, assistant commandant of the Marines.
A few steps away from Foss' grave are the simple stones of Army Brig. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle and Marine Col. Greg "Pappy" Boyington. Both men, like Foss, were World War II pilot heroes.
But Foss alone was the first fighter ace of World War II. The South Dakota farm boy, once deemed too old to be a fighter pilot, eventually shot down 26 Japanese planes. More importantly, his face graced the cover of Life magazine early in the war, when its length and outcome were unclear to an anxious America. The cigar-chomping, sturdily built Foss received the Medal of Honor from Franklin Roosevelt in 1943, and retired from the Marines as a general.
Foss' grave is surrounded by a host of highly decorated generals and admirals as well as the actor Lee Marvin, a World War II Marine veteran; champion boxer Joe Louis; and former ABC anchor Frank Reynolds. Both Louis and Reynolds were Army war veterans.
Arlington is a busy place these days with 25-35 daily burials. Foss' World War II generation of veterans is dying at the rate of 1,000 a day. Their memories wind in slow processions through the marble stones and arching trees. Foss' procession, led by a company of Marines and a caisson of six black and gray horses, wound for 20 minutes past the graves of veterans, laid out side by side in order from the Civil War to Vietnam.
The symbolism of an Arlington burial intensifies in an age of terrorist threats and possible war with Iraq. The tight security around the cemetery, first established to bury the Civil War dead, is one sign. And even as Foss was being buried, the living were left with the knowledge that National Guard units that he helped build back in South Dakota were mobilizing for service.
Foss was 87 when he died, and it was his blunt spirit that was invoked most at a preburial memorial service in Arlington's Old Post Chapel. Several mourners recounted conversations or speeches in which Foss, a born-again Christian, asked directly whether his audience had been saved. Others talked about Foss' absolute devotion to the oath he took as a Marine.
"Joe was a man of deep convictions, and he was never shy about expressing them," said Vice President Dick Cheney, addressing about 250 mourners. Cheney recalled that when he was a member of Congress from Wyoming in the early 1980s, Foss treated Cheney like he was his own congressman, even though Foss did not live in Wyoming.
"I can tell you he was a very tough constituent," Cheney said, to smiles and nodding heads.
"He always described himself as a guy who just gets up and goes, and he seemed indestructible," Cheney said.
Foss was raised on a farm near Sioux Falls, and was forced to run it at age 18 when his father was electrocuted. But two years earlier, young Joe had gotten an insatiable urge to fly after taking a $1.50 plane ride in 1931 from the legendary South Dakota pilot Clyde Ice.
Foss began World War II as a Marine cop after being told that 27 was too old for fighter pilots. But he persisted and became the leader of "Joe's Flying Circus" in the span of months.
Nyland, the assistant Marine commandant, described Foss as a "genuine national hero" who never sought the spotlight.
"It just seemed to find him," Nyland said.
Indeed, the famous and powerful gathered around Foss even in death.
Cheney led a host of dignitaries at the memorial service, including former astronaut and Democratic Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, Watergate figure G. Gordon Liddy and NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, a native South Dakotan and author of "The Greatest Generation" book about World War II veterans. Former Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North spoke briefly at Foss' gravesite.
With Tuesday's burial, Cheney said, Foss "takes his place among the heroes of Arlington."
Hundreds pay tribute to S.D. hero By DENISE D. TUCKER and DAVID KRANZ Argus Leader
Speakers talk of patriotism, faith, humility
On the right lapel of Margaret Barron's pink sweater, next to the gold International Association of Administrative Professionals pin, is a black-and-white Joe Foss for Governor campaign button.
It is a subtle tribute to South Dakota's hero, who died Jan. 1 at age 87.
Barron was one of more than 200 people who attended a tribute to Foss on Wednesday at Augustana College in Sioux Falls.
Among those present to remember Foss' life were former astronaut Capt. Walter "Wally" Schirra Jr., Lt. Gov. Dennis Daugaard and Mayor Dave Munson. NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw spoke by videotape.
"I was expecting this place to be so mobbed, I came an hour early," said Barron, 85. "I really didn't get to know him personally, but everyone knew Joe Foss. He was very human. He was just one of the people."
That sentiment was echoed throughout the program as speakers reflected on Foss' humble, friendly nature - and his love for the United States.
"When you spoke to Joe, you could see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice, his love and faith in our country," said Edward Palmer, with the new Joe Foss Institute.
Serving as a backdrop for the speakers was a wall-size American flag. The Singing Legionnaires sang patriotic songs.
Col. Steve Doohen, with the South Dakota Air National Guard, said, "I know Joe is looking down today and enjoying this."
By talking to friends, Doohen got to know who Foss was. "No one had a bad word against him," he said.
Foss was responsible for getting the Air National Guard base established in Sioux Falls, and there was only one thing he wanted while doing so, Doohen said.
"He wanted it to be the best unit in the country," Doohen said. "Our unit is still known as a premier unit in the country, if not all over the world. I think Joe is very proud with how the unit turned out."
Munson and Daugaard touched on Foss' biography - how he shot down 26 enemy airplanes in World War II, received the Congressional Medal of Honor, was South Dakota's governor, was the commissioner of the American Football League and was president of the National Rifle Association.
A videotape during the ceremony showed services for Foss in Scottsdale, Ariz., and at Arlington National Cemetery.
Vice President Dick Cheney spoke at one of the services and said of Foss, "We're paying tribute to one of the bravest men I knew."
Brokaw took some time to express what a difference Foss made in his life and the nation.
"Because of Joe, my threshold for heroes was set very high," Brokaw said.
He recalled taking Foss to his birthplace and asking him whether he remembered the names of those who didn't come back after the war. Foss did and started reciting names.
"Joe Foss was living his life for those who didn't come back," Brokaw said.
Schirra stepped up to the podium amidst a standing ovation and joked as he greeted the audience with a line famously used by Foss.
"It's nice to be here. It's nice to be anywhere," Schirra said.
Schirra said his friendship with Foss included the two of them competing in hunting and fishing.
"He was a humble man," he said.
"God bless Joe, and God bless America."
Earlier in the day, the inaugural program for the Joe Foss Institute took place at Joe Foss School, an alternative high school at 1200 E. Third St.
Schirra, one of the original Mercury astronauts, paid tribute to Foss, speaking of him as a war hero, politician, religious crusader, football commissioner and outdoorsman.
He challenged the students to become a significant part of the next generation of leaders.
"Put your mind to what you want to do in the future," he said.
Kristin Moller, 16, a student at the school, said she learned a lot about the school's namesake during the 45-minute program. "He had an interesting life, and he accomplished a lot," she said.
During a morning briefing, the implementation of the Joe Foss Institute was announced.
Palmer, vice president of programs and marketing for the institute, said the program also will involve introduction of combat veterans to students.
"They will go there to talk about their personal experiences," Palmer said. "With the work of the institute, we want to restore patriotism, integrity and appreciation for American freedoms. Our goal is to reach a million school-age children each year."
Perry Shinneman, a Vietnam War combat veteran from Sioux Falls, has lived that educational role for many years and is glad to hear about the institute's commitment.
"It is a great idea.I started doing it when I first came home back in 1967," Shinneman said. "I had an experience today at Washington High School. They were very receptive. They ask good questions."
Students wonder about what it is like to be in combat, whether it is constant fighting and what kind of food the servicemen have.
"And they ask you, Did you kill anybody?" And if you did, they ask what that was like," Shinneman said.
It is not just a help for the students, Shinneman said.
"It helps us veterans if we can talk about it. It is therapy for us and education for them."
Carol Flynn of Sioux Falls will become district director for the institute, Palmer said.
Flynn said she will be involved in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska on behalf of the institute.
"The institute is important because we need heroes for our young people. With this war and ever since September 11, we have even greater patriotism in this country," Flynn said.
Foss' wife, Didi, said the institute was her late husband's idea.
"He developed it, and he would be thrilled with the progress we are making," she said.
"But for the last 25 years, the most important thing to him was his faith. He wanted to share that with others and work to have peace on earth."
Reach Denise D. Tucker at 331-2335 or email@example.com.