McGovern recalled as a young pastor near Mundelein

He was a national figure — a congressman, U.S. senator, three-time presidential candidate and decorated bomber pilot who championed peace and an end to hunger.

But before becoming widely known as a liberal Democrat, George McGovern spent a brief period in a resort area near Mundelein crafting sermons and tending to a modest congregation.

As a student pastor at Diamond Lake Community Methodist Church for parts of 1946 and 1947, McGovern early on demonstrated a knack for engaging and connecting with others.

“He was a great guy,” recalled Marilyn Gillies, who was 12 at the time. Her family joined the congregation in 1938 and would remain members until the church dissolved in late 2004. “I never, ever heard anybody say they didn't like him.”

Tall and thin, McGovern was “one of us,” Gillies recalled — an affable and down-to-earth visitor who fit well in his new community and was partial to chicken and dumplings when visiting the Umbdenstock (Gillies' maiden name) family.

“He was a compassionate man. If he saw somebody was having trouble, he was right there to help,” she said.

McGovern died on Sunday and the funeral service is set for today in his home state of South Dakota. He was 90.

He was the son of a Methodist minister and the roots of his faith were evident throughout his career. But it was World War II that interrupted his studies at Dakota Wesleyan University and led him to Diamond Lake.

After flying 35 combat missions, he returned with a Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal, as well as a new direction.

According to a United Methodist Church article after his death, the advent of the atomic bomb led McGovern to ponder the larger questions of life and that survival depended on changing the hearts and minds of man.

He enrolled at the Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary on the Northwestern University campus in Evanston. In the summer of 1946, arrangements were made for him to stay with the Wallace Reidel family and take the pulpit as a student pastor at the Diamond Lake Methodist Church.

He was joined by his wife, Eleanor, and infant daughters, Ann and Susan, after finding his own place at Shady Lane and Ridge Avenue, east of the namesake lake.

It was during this time that Gillies baby-sat the two girls and came to know the McGovern family.

“He baptized me and my two brothers and my two sisters and my mother,” Gillies said.

But those duties didn't sit well with McGovern.

He described his time in Diamond Lake as being “fairly happy” except for two things: He didn't have the temperament for priestly functions and couldn't shake his love of the study of history.

“The courses at Garrett Seminary were stimulating, and constructing and delivering a sermon was a challenge that I responded to readily,” he wrote in his autobiography “Grassroots.”

“But baptizing babies, officiating at weddings, administering the communion rituals and presiding at funerals — these tasks left me feeling excessively pious and ill at ease.”

And after three years of “zesty language” in the Army, McGovern wrote, he wasn't prepared for a “sudden hush of reverence” when he approached a group of men telling salty stories.

After 65 years, the subject matter is elusive but Gillies still remembers the delivery of the sermons on which McGovern worked so hard.

“He wasn't here very long, but he touched a lot of people. He was a very good minister. Very good. He kept you on the seat of your pants,” Gillies recalled.

In one of his first sermons, McGovern wrote, he wanted parishioners to understand they had to reach beyond “immediate self-serving enrichment” to consider the well-being of others.

He also reported anxiety in the pews when he insisted that nuclear energy had made traditional nationalism obsolete. But the congregation responded well, he wrote, and Sunday attendance tripled.

But the end of the short experiment was nearing.

The McGoverns shared the big house with his sister-in-law, Ila, and her husband, Bob Pennington, who was enrolled in the graduate school of history at Northwestern. One afternoon at Pennington's suggestion, McGovern visited a lecture course, “Intellectual History of the United States,” and became transfixed, his appetite for historical study rekindled.

“That was the end of my nine-month experience with seminary and student preaching,” McGovern wrote.

Biographer Robert Sam Anson wrote that at the time, McGovern was still “raw boned and idealistic, full of evangelical fervor and intensity, and anxious as ever to spread the social gospel as well as the good news of world peace.”

He switched to the study of history at Northwestern, earning a master's degree and a doctorate in 1953 in American history and government.

Back home, he became the executive secretary of the South Dakota Democratic Party. He had switched from his family's Republican roots, convinced that Democrats were more aligned with the average American.

“We never dreamed he would be a politician,” Gillies said. “When he did, we were most shocked. We never thought of him doing that.”

  Marilyn Gillies holds the Certificate of Baptism signed by three-time presidential candidate George S. McGovern, who in parts of 1946 and 1947 was a student pastor at the former Diamond Lake Methodist Church in Mundelein. Gilbert R. Boucher II/
  The Certificate of Baptism of Marilyn Gillies is signed by George S. McGovern, who for a short time early in his career served as a pastor at the former Diamond Lake Methodist Church in Mundelein. He went on to be a nationally known political figure. Gilbert R. Boucher II/
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