PIERRE, S.D. - As governor of South Dakota for 16 years, Bill Janklow was always in a hurry - pushing lawmakers to approve his proposals and racing to disaster sites to take charge. His need for speed also probably played a role in his one regret: the 2003 fatal traffic accident that landed him in jail and ended his political career.
As South Dakota’s attorney general, governor, and congressman, the colorful politician dominated the state’s political landscape for more than a quarter century, changing the face of the state’s economy, education system, and tax structure. Even his enemies - and there were many - admitted the Republican had a talent for getting things done, even as they complained that he ran roughshod over his opponents.
Mr. Janklow died yesterday of brain cancer after being moved to hospice care in Sioux Falls earlier in the week, his son Russ said. He was 72.
At a final press conference in November, Mr. Janklow had announced he had inoperable cancer and said his only regret was running a stop sign and killing a motorcyclist. The crash happened less than a year after Mr. Janklow was elected to the US House.
“If I had it to do over, I’d do everything I did, but I’d stop at a stop sign,’’ Mr. Janklow said.
A fresh incision along his hairline from temple to ear, Mr. Janklow broke down and cried as he announced he was dying.
Mr. Janklow was known as a brilliant lawyer, a dynamic and brash speaker, and an innovative governor. He had a long list of accomplishments, including saving rail service for much of the state, cutting property taxes, and leading the nation in connecting classrooms to the Internet.
“To me, it seems indisputable he was South Dakota’s greatest governor,’’ Dave Knudson, a former legislator who served two stints as Mr. Janklow’s chief of staff said after Mr. Janklow announced he had brain cancer. Mr. Janklow was driven to solve problems, Knudson said.
Mr. Janklow also had a reputation as an abrasive man who refused to compromise and sometimes blasted his opponents in public. Yet he quietly helped many people down on their luck, paying to send young people to college or buying gear for a baseball team from an American Indian reservation.
“He fought for underdogs all his life,’’ David Volk, former state treasurer, said yesterday. “That got lost because he’s this blustery guy that always kind of led every battle from the front. . . . The real guy was this softy, this kind person.’’
“My whole life has been fighting for people,’’ Mr. Janklow said shortly before his political career ended. “It’s what I know how to do in terms of representing people.’’
It came to an end when he sped through a stop sign in August 2003 while returning home from an event in Aberdeen. A jury later convicted Mr. Janklow of second-degree manslaughter and misdemeanor charges of reckless driving, failure to stop, and speeding. He was ordered to serve 100 days in jail.
During the trial, Mr. Janklow claimed low blood sugar as a result of diabetes had dulled his senses and reflexes.
Though contrite, Mr. Janklow noted in an appearance before the Supreme Court in 2005 that he had won praise for driving fast while he was governor.
“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. When I got blown off the road in a tornado going to Spencer, people complimented me,’’ he said in asking the court to reinstate his license. It later did.
When a tornado destroyed much of the small town of Spencer in 1998, Mr. Janklow was there within an hour. During the 50-mile drive from his home east of Sioux Falls, he hit the storm’s edge, got blown into a ditch, then drove back onto the highway.
When a family was held hostage in the Capitol while he was attorney general, he showed up carrying an automatic rifle to help officers deal with the incident, which ended when the hostages escaped.
Mr. Janklow also was known for using humor and sarcasm in his fights with other officials. 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.’’ During a long-running battle with Rudy Perpich, then the governor of Minnesota, over South Dakota’s effort to attract Minnesota businesses, Mr. Janklow joked, “I suppose they’ll claim they have Major League baseball in Minnesota,’’ at a time when the Twins were foundering.
It was all part of the unconventional style of a man who was a maverick from a young age.
William J. Janklow was born in Chicago. After the death of his father, who helped prosecute Nazis for war crimes, his mother moved the family to her hometown of Flandreau, S.D. Mr. Janklow got into trouble in high school, so he left to join the Marines.
He talked his way into the University of South Dakota, though he had not graduated from high school, and received a bachelor’s degree in 1964 and a law degree in 1966. Along the way, he married Mary Dean Thom in 1960. They had three children.
In his last two terms as governor, Mr. Janklow gained approval for his plan to boost state aid to school districts and used inmates to wire public school classrooms to the Internet, leading the nation in that effort.
Mr. Janklow’s body will lie in state at the Capitol Rotunda in Pierre on Tuesday. A funeral is scheduled for Wednesday morning at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls.