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Patrick Springer, Published January 18 2012

Former Gov. Janklow helped shape health care in Dakotas

South Dakota is mourning the death of Bill Janklow, a former governor who changed the landscape of that state in a multitude of ways. He will be laid to rest today after lying in state in the Capitol rotunda.

As many know, Janklow was a get-things-done pragmatist, part trial lawyer and part former Marine, whose actions defied ideology. He once bought miles of railroad track threatened with abandonment to keep farmers’ grain moving and later sold the state cement plant. A former state attorney general, he used penitentiary inmates to help wire classrooms to the Internet.

But people in the Red River Valley and beyond probably aren’t aware of how Janklow inadvertently changed the delivery of health care in the region in a way that was significant, although indirect.

One of Janklow’s signature accomplishments was lowering South Dakota’s usury rate, a move in 1980 that helped lure Citibank and other large credit card issuers to open operations in Sioux Falls and elsewhere, creating thousands of jobs over time and establishing a new industry for the state.

One of the banks that moved to set up a credit card center in South Dakota is First Premier Bank, owned by T. Denny Sanford – the benefactor, starting with a donation of $400 million, of what now is known as Sanford Health. That organization, which began as Sioux Valley Hospital, merged in 2009 with MeritCare to form the region’s health care behemoth.

The combined health system, with headquarters in Fargo and Sioux Falls, includes 34 hospitals, 116 clinic locations and more than 1,000 doctors in a service area including parts of five Midwestern states.

Some of the most dramatic consequences of that growing health system will be seen right here in Fargo-Moorhead, including a $360 million medical center with four towers 11 stories tall that will loom on the city’s southwest horizon in 2016. A big new clinic also is planned for the eastern edge of Moorhead.

Sanford executives and board members have said the new hospital, and other initiatives including a breast cancer research and treatment center, wouldn’t have happened without the Sanford-MeritCare merger.

And that merger, it seems safe to say, likely wouldn’t have happened if Denny Sanford’s generous gift to Sioux Valley hadn’t transformed the organization in a way that expanded its reach.

Janklow, who loved verbal jousting, had a personality could be pugnacious. Tragically, his impetuous personality was on display when, as a member of Congress, he sped through a rural stop sign and killed a motorcyclist – an accident that ended his political career. He spoke of that accident as his single regret when he announced in November that he was dying of an inoperable brain tumor.

The governor’s style was described as bullying at times, and he was often abrasive. But he also could turn on the charm. While he was wooing Citibank, the CEO made an admiring comment about an old chair in Janklow’s office. After the meeting, the governor told an aide to make sure the chair was waiting in the Citibank executive’s office by the time he returned to New York.

Even a visionary like Janklow couldn’t have known all that he set in motion 32 years ago with that bold stroke.


Springer, who joined The Forum as a reporter in 1985, previously worked at the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls.