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The Humphrey Minnesota knows took shape in S.D.

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A visit home
Vice President Humbert Humphrey gets a boutonniere in this newspaper photo during his 1968 campaign visit to Doland, S.D.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

Hubert Humphrey is a political icon in Minnesota, but he was born 100 years ago -- May 27, 1911 -- in South Dakota, where his small hometown still fondly remembers its favorite son.

Doland lies in the flat farm country of eastern South Dakota, amid newly plowed fields and herds of black cattle on green grass. A visitor who turns off U.S. Hwy. 212 onto Humphrey Drive will quickly see a small sign on an old brick building -- the original site of the Humphrey drug store.

From 1915 to 1931, the Humphrey family ran the drug store in Doland, with its pharmacy, soda fountain and sundry goods. It's a place that instilled Humphrey with the values that would define him and steer him toward public service.

Humphrey, a Democrat, was elected mayor of Minneapolis and to the U.S. Senate before becoming Lyndon Johnson's vice president. He narrowly lost the 1968 presidential election to Richard Nixon.

"A lot of people loved Humphrey, but it doesn't mean that everyone here voted for him," said Alma Lake Richard, a local historian. "But certainly he was admired and loved and wished well whether you were a Republican, a Democrat or an independent."

The Humphrey drug store
Alma Lake Richard looks at the sign marking the location of the Humphrey drug store in Doland, S.D.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

The feeling was mutual. Even as he climbed the political ladder, Humphrey remembered his Doland roots and his adventures in the town that nicknamed him "Pinky." During his 1968 presidential run he came home to deliver the keynote speech at the Doland High School graduation ceremony. The address took hometown supporters, curious out-of-towners and the national media on a journey back to his early days.

"I hope that the people who have gathered here today, visitors from outside of the state of South Dakota, will begin to understand why I love this town so much," Humphrey said.

Humphrey threw the crowd a twist on the old line "hometown boy makes good." He said for him the more accurate phrase was "hometown makes boy."  

"It has given us the intellectual, spiritual and social nourishment that we need to become enlightened, civilized human beings," he said.

Even as a young boy growing up in Doland, Humphrey was a bit of a star. He was nearly a straight-A student, said Ethel Kitterman Riddle, a friend of his sister Frances who visited the Humphrey home often.

"He was very studious and a great debater," said Riddle, 96.

Boyhood home
Humphrey's boyhood home in Doland, South Dakota. Humphrey spent most of his Doland years in this house. But the family moved to a second home in Doland for a year or two before leaving the town in the early 1930's.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

During his political career Humphrey was tagged the "happy warrior." He called his chosen occupation "the politics of joy."

Humphrey displayed that same optimism during his boyhood days in Doland, Riddle said.

"He delivered papers to people's homes," she said. "Always greeted with a happy greeting everybody, which everyone liked, you know. And that made Hubert a very favorite young man in Doland."

Humphrey grew up in a gray, two-story house in the south end of Doland. His family moved there when he was four.

In his autobiography, he said the house was as good as any in Doland, with beautiful shade trees and a chicken coop behind the garage.

Humphrey photo
Former Vice President Hubert Humphrey's photo still hangs in the Doland High School.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

Richard says the Humphrey family lived in this house for most of their years in Doland.

Humphrey was actually born 35 miles away in Wallace, S.D.  But he always regarded Dolan, the community where he grew up and graduated from high school as his hometown, Richard said.

Humphrey's teen years, the roaring '20s, were anything but roaring economically in Doland. The economy was already collapsing in rural America, sending farm prices plummeting. By the end of the decade, banks were closing, including some in Doland.

By the time the stock market crashed in October 1929 at the onset of the Great Depression, Doland was already struggling. Then came drought and dust storms. Humphrey recalled the period in his 1968 speech in Doland.

"Wind storms blew the seed away in the dust -- dust that literally settled an inch, two inches thick over everything," he said. "And even the street lights had to be on all day. There are people here in this audience that remember those pathetic days."

The Humphrey Auditorium
The Doland High School auditorium is named for Humphrey.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

The Depression took down a lot of Doland businesses, including the Humphrey Drug Store. But Hubert Humphrey's father reacted differently than most to the financial stress, said Tip Miles, former owner of the Doland Times Record.

In 1931, Hubert Humphrey Sr. left Doland for a fresh start in Huron, S.D. But the elder Humphrey did not lash out at all the people who owed him money for unpaid pharmacy bills. Instead, Miles said, his goodbye took the form of a generous gesture to a town that was flat on its back. 

"He individually sent a letter to everyone who owed him money, canceling the debt," Miles said, and urged them to visit his new drug store in Huron.

Those sorts of acts shaped the young Hubert Humphrey. Miles and his wife, Alice, got to know Humphrey well when they bought the Doland newspaper in the 1960s. Humphrey always kept up his subscription.

Alice Miles said she believes the tough days of the Great Depression made Humphrey the politician he was.

"He remembered well what his family had gone through; he always spoke of that," she said. "He cared so much about people."

High school
Humphrey attended classes in this part of the high school. He graduated in 1929.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

Humphrey made that clear in his 1968 commencement address.

"That dust got all the way inside of you," he said. "It affected your life, it affected your thoughts, and, in a very real way, it affected your hopes. I believe that we were literally toughened -- toughened in the fires of adversity."  

Doland is facing adversity again. The town's population is 180, down two-thirds from the days when Humphrey walked the streets. But you can still find the Doland spirit that Humphrey paid homage to then.

Scott DesLauriers, who graduated this month from Doland High School, sent this message in a speech he gave at the graduation ceremony:

"This is my favorite part: 'Hold true to what has shaped your yesterdays,' " DesLauriers said. "I definitely think Humphrey did that."

He said Humphrey's life story proves that people from small towns can do great things.

It's difficult to measure, but DesLauriers and others say the Humphrey legacy inspired other Doland graduates to big achievements.  Former newspaper owner Miles said that's something the small town can be proud of.

"We've had a governor, Harvey Wollman. We've had his brother, a circuit court judge," Miles said.  "And then of course we've had three generals, the McNickle twins and General Chris Divich.  We've had two Greco-Roman wrestlers that participated in the world Olympics."

The town has put up a granite memorial to honor Humphrey and the other Doland success stories.  It's a monument to the idea that hometown makes boy.