Headline, Rapid City Journal, April 1975
“[Don Barnett] became Rapid City’s chief executive in the pre-flood, pre-AIM, pre-recession era, and he steered the community unwaveringly through what probably were the most turbulent four years of its history.”
Jack Getz, “Mayor Barnett – a look at the man,” Rapid City Journal<o:p></o:p>
<o:p> </o:p>Donald V. Barnett (SDSU 1964) grew up in “the Gap” between Rapid City’s downtown and its west side where the city meets the Black Hills. Out of those hills on the night of June 9, 1972 roared a cataclysmic torrent that left 238 citizens dead, destroyed 720 homes, and severely damaged another 1,400 dwellings and 200 commercial structures along Rapid Creek. At age 29, the youngest mayor in the city’s history faced an immediate and enormous test of his executive leadership.
Some will say Barnett earned his place in the South Dakota Hall of Fame because he guided Rapid City through its recovery and revitalization. He would argue he didn’t accomplish that on his own. The Rapid City Common Council, municipal employees, and the people of Rapid City were full partners in responding to the flood’s aftermath and during years of recovery. There is more to Don Barnett than his leadership after the Black Hills flood.
As a young man, Barnett overcame a severe stuttering problem (with support and affection by 2 wonderful teachers, Mrs. Hazel Prunty & Ms. Hazel Heiman) through participation in junior and senior high school forensics. He attained the Boy Scouts of America’s rank of Eagle. Barnett did not begin his military service with ROTC training. While a graduate student at the University of Nebraska, he sought a Direct Commission, joining the U.S. Army in 1967 as a 2nd Lieutenant as the Vietnam War reached its full fury.
His training at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, as a Medical Service Corps officer resulted in a call to duty in Washington, DC, during the riots that followed the 1968 assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King. That experience led to his assignment as Commander of a Medical Company (240 men) in Vietnam. As a senior administrator at a 400-bed neurosurgical and spinal wound hospital, he earned the Bronze Star Medal for meritorious achievement in ground operations against hostile forces and was honorably discharged at the rank of Captain in December 1969.
Upon the young veteran’s return he sensed within his hometown a defeatist attitude. Its residents seemed to believe that the ways things were, they would always remain. He vowed to shake the city from its lethargy, beginning what seasoned observers at first thought a quixotic campaign for mayor against a retired Ellsworth Air Force Base Commander anointed by city leaders.
A long-promised civic center was at the top of his agenda. He believed the facility was needed as an economic stimulus and that it could dramatically improve the city’s quality of life both through job creation and as a regional entertainment venue.
As he campaigned in every corner of the city, his ebullient optimism and abundant energy created a real race. By election night, he had squeaked out a few-hundred vote victory.
Although senior council members repeatedly defeated the new Mayor’s early initiatives, Barnett was a quick learner and soon earned the council members’ trust. Together they found creative ways to share authority, work in harmony, and launch a bipartisan campaign for the long-promised civic center.
The city council, Barnett, and prominent citizens spent countless hours visiting every corner of the city to convince voters it made sense to tax themselves to finally build a civic center. The Mayor and Council teamed up to lobby the State Legislature for a modest change in state law.
Their success and the harmonious and enthusiastic spirit it entailed motivated the Rapid City Journal to editorialize after the special election that Rapid City had shaken off, in convincing fashion, a “recently acquired habit of saying ‘no’ to progress. By any measure, the victory was a stunning one for Mayor Barnett and the Civic Center promoters.” The measure had carried by 63%.
Two months later came the flood.
It is not possible to know precisely how the can-do spirit that evolved from the decision to build a civic center affected Rapid City’s flood recovery. But what is known is that the bonds of trust and cooperation were strong. The “civil defense” aspects of the crisis were entrusted to the Pennington County Commission. Barnett and senior city managers tended to the restoration of key municipal services, including the city’s inundated sewage, water treatment, and potable water delivery systems.
He also demonstrated an ability to raise his sights. Granted seventeen precious minutes on NBC’s “Today Show,” he discussed the disaster for only six minutes. For the balance of the time, Barnett explained how South Dakota absolutely needed tourists to visit Mt. Rushmore, the Black Hills, and places not touched by the flood-waters to bring about full recovery.
Over the course of months, Barnett presided at meetings where a series of 11-0 votes (with the Mayor casting a symbolic eleventh vote) decided the city’s future with regard to flood plain management, residential and commercial re-locations, and a host of difficult decisions with progressive solutions based on safety for future generations.
Then came a social crisis that might have caused all of this good will to evaporate.
Barnett describes February 1973 as the most agonizing month of his life. Rapid City became the first medium-sized community on the western frontier to face the challenge of organized civil disobedience. When the American Indian Movement came to town, Barnett had to mediate between the forces of revolution and those of reaction, preventing bloodshed on either side. Even though he and City’s Racial Conciliation Board were briefly held hostage, Barnett’s equanimity and his decisive, yet compassionate, example prevented a confrontation that could have damaged forever the city’s and South Dakota’s image and reputation.
Four years of extraordinary service and leadership in a time of tumultuous events and momentous challenge are the reasons for which Don Barnett joins the South Dakota Hall of Fame.
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