By David Lias
Lieutenant Gov. Matt Michels told a bit of his life story while addressing the annual banquet of the Vermillion Chamber of Commerce and Development Company.
The Vermillion community, he said, is richly woven throughout his family’s history.
Addressing a capacity audience in The Eagles Thursday night, March 14, he talked of his grandfather, who originally tried, and failed at being in cobbler in Vermillion. He later found success as a businessman in the community.
“Their whole world was centered around commerce, and the destination of this community was commerce,” he said, speaking of his grandfather, and his great-uncle, who also was involved in the Vermillion community a couple generations ago.
Michels’ grandfather attended the University of South Dakota, and the lieutenant governor brought his 1925 USD yearbook, “The Coyote,” to the banquet.
“It was interesting as I looked through this,” he said. “One way this yearbook was paid for was through advertising.”
He flipped through the back pages of the yearbook, showing the ads that appeared nearly 90 years ago. It was a light-hearted exercise that punctuated by Michels’ amusing reading of the ads that brought back memories of businesses that no longer exist, and served as a reminder that several of the community’s establishments have existed for a long time.
Michels found ads for:
- The Coyote Theatre – “the theatre of quality, showing the best of Paramount and First National Pictures, and leading, legitimate plays.”
- The Coyote Barbershop, described as “the world’s best barbershop.”
- The Plain Talk – “Printing pleases particular people. Promptly executed.”
- The First National Bank – “Capital & Surplus … $100,000.”
- “And one of my personal favorites – Sanitary Barbershop and Billiard Parlor,” Michels said, flipping through the yearbook. “That’s because the world’s best barbershop was already taken.”
The Vermillion community also promoted itself in the 1925 yearbook with this advertisement: “Vermillion, South Dakota. State, University, City. Vermillion can and will meet your requirements for it is an ideal city of home and education. Vermillion is progressive, beautiful, modern and the county seat of Clay County. Clay County is a rich agricultural county, and except for the lands around the river, it is a level prairie where hundreds of beautiful farms are found. Corn is king. Diversified farming has long been the rule here. Crop failure has never been known. Vermillion has always realized its responsibility to the people of South Dakota by establishing a state university within its borders, and hence, no city on earth can surpass its moral tone.”
The ad also mentions the educational opportunities Vermillion provides to local youth, and describes the community as a place “where we can find rest and peace.”
On a more serious note, Michels said Vermillion citizens were promoting the community as a destination back in the 1920s, and that work continues today.
“I know a number of you, and that our destination is full of people with a belief and a reliance on self-government and self-determination,” he said.
In the time when Lincoln was in the White House, the people of Vermillion took part in a grand experiment of self-governance, Michels said, and they were successful.
“Vermillion indeed is a beacon of self-governance, and educational institutions that say, ‘This is a gift that we can’t squander.’ Vermillion remains a gateway of South Dakota, demonstrating and teaching the rest of the state, by the energy you see here tonight.”
Michels noted that Vermillion is a community that is also willing to take risks, and noted businesses that exist in the city today because people were willing to take a chance.
Risk-taking is part of the community’s and state’s heritage, he said.
“People came to this state, and they came to this region because they had the courage to embark on a new life, a new opportunity, and they didn’t even know whether or not there were sufficient resources to survive,” Michels said. “Can you imagine?
“The ideal of courage remains a steadfast ingredient of Vermillion,” he said. “We are continually taking risks here in our region. The stakes are still extraordinarily high. Small business owners, entrepreneurs, all of you strive for courage when you weigh those big business decisions like an expansion.”
Michels concluded his talk by noting that his family is living proof that Vermillion is community of compassion. He talked of the difficult time his family faced when he was growing up here. When Michels was at student at Vermillion High School, his father moved away from town, divorced his mother, and suddenly she found herself to be a single mother trying to keep the household together. The family was emotionally devastated, and Michels was old enough at the time to know they were deep in debt.
“Talk about being afraid … obviously, it’s affected me to this day,” he said. “But, Vermillion is a community of compassion. The community rallied around us. Many, many people – many are in this room – came to our aid.”
Michels said that her mother taught his children that through hard work, education, and dedication, there would come opportunities.
“She also said you had the responsibility to make sure that you took care of others,” he said, “and of course, she was right.”
Michels turned to his mother, sitting at a front banquet table, and jokingly said, “You did an amazing job, Mom, even though you are a SDSU grad.
“She has successful children that are in service, and we are resilient, we aren’t reliant. We’re driven to give thanks by our deeds and our service to others,” he said. “It’s because of people like you, and our predecessors, that we continue to embrace and care for others in the community. I know Vermillion is a community of compassion, because I’ve seen it.”