SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- As a presidential hopeful marked in history for his futile 1972 finish, George McGovern wore the badge of an unapologetic liberal. As a longtime Democratic officeholder from conservative South Dakota, the former senator had admirers who spanned the political spectrum.
The view of McGovern as a public servant with broader appeal prevailed as South Dakota prepared for a final send-off Friday of the man many knew simply as George. A large memorial service was to follow a more intimate prayer service held Thursday night and attended by the state's luminaries and Vice President Joe Biden.
In Biden's 25-minute reflection on his former Senate colleague, the vice president hailed McGovern as "the father of the modern Democratic Party." Without his resolve, Biden said, the country would have remained mired in the Vietnam War for longer and "so much more blood and so much more treasure would have been wasted."
"The war would never have ended when it did. It would never have ended when it did," Biden said, his voice rising as he turned his body toward McGovern's daughters. "Your father gave courage to people who didn't have the courage to speak up to finally stand up. Your father stood there and took all of that beating."
Speaker after speaker said McGovern never wavered from his guiding principles.
"When I think of George, I think of a man of uncompromising integrity," said Democratic U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson.
The ceremony featured heartfelt tributes by McGovern family members, longtime friends and political loyalists. The crowd of hundreds sat hushed as snippets of McGovern's acceptance speech from the 1972 Democratic National Convention crackled on a church loudspeaker. "We are entering a new period of important and hopeful change in America," came the echo from the past.
All afternoon, mourners filed past his open casket and paused in the pews of a Methodist church to reflect. In the sanctuary, images of McGovern were displayed on screens and poster boards. They showed him during his presidential campaign, in his World War II Army uniform and with his wife, Eleanor, who died five years ago. In one, he is hunched in a field with the words "Prairie Populist" in a corner. Mourners came from surrounding states and as far away as Connecticut.
Retired educator Mike Schroeder, of Sioux Falls, recalled meeting McGovern at a church supper in the small town of Bridgewater when McGovern was first running for office. Schroeder was a Republican but wound up voting for McGovern in the Democrat's every race.
"I just remember the Vietnam War, and he was right on a lot of the things he said on the war," Schroeder said. Plus, he said, "He helped put South Dakota on the map."
McGovern's 1972 candidacy centered around his pledge to pull America out of Vietnam, telling those who would listen that his "heart has ached" over the war. "I have no secret plan for peace," he said in his Democratic National Convention speech accepting the party nomination. "I have a public plan."
It was a plan he never had a chance to execute. He lost that year in a rout to incumbent Republican President Richard Nixon, who won all but one state. South Dakota even went Nixon's way.
Todd Hong was just 15 and a high school student when he volunteered for McGovern in the final months of the White House campaign.
"He was a great voice of reason at the time," said the 55-year-old technical writer who drove from Eden Prairie, Minn., to pay his respects. "I was losing friends in Vietnam, friends' brothers. We weren't immune to the effects."
Holding back tears, Hong said McGovern's principled stands took courage. "I don't see politicians like that anymore," he said.
McGovern's political career would effectively end eight years later, when he was defeated in a Senate re-election campaign. He waged a 1984 bid for president but was regarded a longshot from the outset.
But McGovern didn't fade from a sense of service. He rededicated himself to a lifelong passion to fight world hunger. McGovern, once a global ambassador in the campaign to feed needy children, continued that cause well into his 80s. In 2008, he was awarded the World Food Prize along with former Republican Sen. Bob Dole, who like his compatriot faced defeat in a presidential race.
Former state lawmaker Sandy Jerstad of Sioux Falls worked on McGovern's 1972 campaign but grew closer in recent years. They would talk over meals, including one in which he remarked on his life's unfinished business.
"God's got to give me at least three more years," Jerstad said McGovern told her. "I've got to finish my project to get food to all the schoolchildren in the world."
Jerstad visited McGovern days before he died Sunday and she told him people around the world love him.
McGovern is to be buried at a later date at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington.