Former Lt. Gov. Matt Michels, a Vermillion native, told a Veterans Day crowd in the Vermillion High School gymnasium Friday, Nov. 11, that it was a great honor to be asked to be the keynote speaker at the event.
“It is beyond humbling,” he said as he offered thanks to Gold Star families that were present in the gym and were watching a live video stream of the event.
“I can never, ever, speak in front of a group (at a Memorial Day or Veterans Day event) without thanking those families for their love, for their support and for their dedication. There are so many people that are nameless, but these families live with that hole,” he said as he asked the audience to give these families a round of applause.
Michels also asked all Vietnam-era veterans in the gymnasium to stand so that they, too, could be honored by the audience with applause.
He also asked the audience to give a hearty “Go Tanagers” cheer and explained why.
“When these celebrations take place in some countries I have been in … it’s not ‘Go Tanagers’ or ‘Go Whatever,’ it’s a cheer for some despot leader, for somebody who is oppressing others, like in Iran where women cannot show their heads or can’t go to school,” Michels said. “In Afghanistan, it’s the same thing.
“In other countries, the rallies are not about teams or individual desires or dreams,” he said. “The rallies are about dictators and if you don’t cheer for that dictator, your family could be at risk. I’ve been in countries where individuals cannot vote without taking their lives into their own hands. So, I want to pause and just breathe in the gift that we all have that has been secured by past veterans, current individuals serving in the military and our future veterans.”
Michels is a graduate of Vermillion High School and the University of South Dakota. Today, he lives in Yankton.
Friday’s Veterans Day celebration was hosted in the school gym by Vermillion High School and American Legion Post 1 of Vermillion.
The program began with a formal welcome from Legion Post 1, a procession of veterans and the playing of the songs of each branch of the armed forces by the Vermillion High School Band.
The Vermillion ROTC presented the colors and Legion Post 1 led in the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance. The VHS Band and Choir performed the “Star Spangled Banner,” and Legion Post 1 took a moment to recognize POW/MIA soldiers and local veterans and their families.
After the reading of a proclamation by Mayor Jon Cole, local musicians Mitchell Olson, Paul Ebsen, Anthony Burbach, Rylan Craig, Carrie Malek-Madani, Stephanie Lynch-Taylor, Tommy Craig and Lennea Olson performed “Imagine,” by John Lennon. Later in the program, they offered Garth Brook’s “We Shall Be Free” to the Veterans Day crowd.
The morning’s program also included a video by Vermillion Middle School students and the Austin Elementary students’ performance of “Thank You, Soldiers” by Michael and Angela Souders. The students were directed by their music teacher, Gretchen Burbach.
“What Veterans Day Means To Me” essays were read by Jolley Elementary fifth-graders Camille Wood and Izzy Welch. The two girls are the winners of the essay contest. Awards were also presented to VHS juniors who won the local American Legion Veteran Biography essay contest.
Michels, an attorney who serves as general counsel for Avera Health, represented District 18 as a member of the South Dakota House of Representatives for eight years, from 1999 to 2006. Four of those years were spent as Speaker of the House.
Dennis Daugaard tapped Michels as his running mate during the 2010 election. Both Daugaard and Michels won as governor and governor-elect, respectively, in 2010 and both were re-elected in 2014.
“Freedom is in peril in many parts of the world,” said Michels, who served as a JAG officer in the U.S. Navy. “If you tune out anti-social media and read and understand what’s going on, it’s because that people do not believe that regular individuals can self-govern. We must pause every day, whether it’s Veterans Day or my favorite month of Thanksgiving, to thank so many people for the freedoms that we enjoy.”
He noted that many graves found in South Dakota cemeteries are of veterans of the U.S. Civil War, who never could imagine there would one day be a WWI. It was the end of WWI, Michels added, that gave us Armistice Day, which eventually became Veterans Day.
Armistice Day, known as Veterans Day today, is celebrated each Nov. 11 to mark the armistice signed between the Allies of World War I and Germany for the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front of that war, which took effect at 11 o’clock in the morning—the "eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" of 1918.
“After World War II, we had to have it morph into Veterans Day,” Michels said, “because, unfortunately, we had another incredible war.
“As I reflect on our symbolism of the day, I think of the impact and the celebration of the veterans personally, the individuals here in my life and my mom and other individuals who brought us to programs like this,” he said, “indicating that you need to pay homage and understand it as important and understand our history.”
Michels told his audience that Americans must fully understand the nation’s history to fully comprehend why individuals, such as veterans, are needed to protect the country’s liberties.
“President Lincoln said it so eloquently, that this government is about us. It’s about the people,” he said, “and it’s interesting, having come through many campaigns myself – everybody will point to the government (and at times say) ‘I don’t like your government.’ That’s not a thing. We the people are the government.
“I’ve never seen a government go to war. They can order it. I’ve never seen a government give hope or respond to natural disasters,” Michels said. “That’s us. That’s human beings. And he (Lincoln) said self-governance was a grand experiment and at that time, very few countries were doing this. He said because of this, we were proposing to give everybody a chance – you and me.”
He noted that Lincoln grew up when the United States was still a relatively young nation.
“Most nations around that time all were ruled by dictators, or individuals who were king or queen and saying ‘it has to be this way and the lower classes – there’s no way you can handle your own affairs. We must take care of you.’” Michels said. “When you looked at that, most people around the nation believed democracy and these individual freedoms were really crazy, that there’s no way us regular people could self-govern.”
He noted that Lincoln believed the United States could not govern while enslaving people and yet talk about freedom.
“He developed the idea later in a speech when he said, ‘Those of you who are denying freedom to others – the slaves – deserve it not for yourselves, either.’ In Lincoln’s mind,” Michels said, “and this principle comes directly to us today, through my bloodline and through all of yours regardless of being here as natives, immigrants or individuals who are not here today – it is a result that government is not something separate from us. It is us.
“Look at these veterans,” he said, gesturing toward the local VFW Honor Guard that sat in a row near the podium. “We could not have freedom and the inability to have campaigns, freedom of thought, the ability to express an opinion and vote with no fear that, indeed, we are a people that can self-govern.”
Michels noted that Lincoln said at Gettysburg that we are, indeed, a people that govern ourselves “because we have a government of the people and by the people and for us,” he said. “I’m going to add, as he did later, but secured by our veterans.”
There are over 4,000 Civil War veterans buried in South Dakota, Michels said, “that brought with them themes of how valuable this freedom is. Of those 4,000, they made a big imprint for us to carry forward. It is so important to understand history.”
He told the audience he is incredibly grateful to the women and men who continue to serve in all branches of the U.S. military and to families who are encouraging members to serve.
Michels recalled a moment in his childhood when his mother told him that James Fuchs, a young man from Vermillion, had been killed in the Vietnam War.
Mrs. Fuchs, the soldier’s mother, was the head cook who would make sure he and his classmates were well-fed each day while attending school in Vermillion.
“This was her little boy who died,” Michels recalls his mother saying, adding that she told him and other family members to say a brief prayer for the family whenever they passed by her home.
He urged audience members to talk with veterans in the Vermillion community and get to know what they did or what they currently are doing in the service.
“That way, you can evoke from individuals a story of why they have served or why they are serving,” Michels said, “and pique an interest in the fact that, indeed, they are the defenders of liberty, of tolerance, of progress and most importantly, of self-governance.”