Sen. John Thune
In 1906, two brothers, Nikolai and Matthew Gjelsvik, arrived at Ellis Island from Norway. The only English they knew were the words apple pie and coffee, which they learned on the boat on the way over. The immigration officials at Ellis Island asked them to change their last name because they thought it would be too difficult for people in this country to spell and pronounce. So the two brothers picked a new name. They chose the name of the farm they worked at near Bergen, Norway – which was called the Thune farm. So Nikolai Gjelsvik became Nick Thune – my grandfather.
The two brothers worked on the railroad as they built it west across South Dakota, learned English, and saved up enough money to start a small merchandising company, and then later a hardware store, in Mitchell, South Dakota.
To this day there is a Thune Hardware in Mitchell, although the family sold it many years ago. In 1916, Nick Thune married an Iowa girl who had moved to South Dakota to teach school, and they had three sons. Their middle son, Harold, will turn 100 on December 28. That middle son is my dad.
My dad is a World War II veteran, a member of the Greatest Generation, and he shares the qualities of so many in that generation – humility, patriotism, quiet service. Dad was a Navy pilot who flew Hellcats off the USS Intrepid. And he was an excellent pilot. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for shooting down four enemy planes in one engagement (that commendation was issued by Admiral John McCain, Sen. John McCain’s grandfather.)
But my dad didn’t – and still doesn’t – talk about his own exploits. In fact, without my mom, I’m not sure I’d ever have known about my dad’s record in World War II. I interviewed Dad for the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project a few years back, and he shared a lot of wonderful details about his service. But as usual, his focus was never on his own achievements, but on those of his fellow pilots.
I’d also probably never have learned what an outstanding athlete my dad was if it hadn’t been for my mom. My dad grew up in the small town of Murdo, South Dakota, during the Great Depression. They didn’t have a lot, but there were a lot of basketball hoops around Murdo – on barns, poles, garages – and my dad learned to play. In fact, he learned to play so well that he took his high school basketball team to the state championship game – where, although they lost narrowly, he was named the tournament’s most valuable player.
My dad had hoped to attend college in South Dakota, but a doctor in Murdo named Joseph Murphy thought my dad was good enough to play at the University of Minnesota and used his contacts to get my dad up to Hibbing Junior College in hopes that the Minnesota Gophers would notice him. They did, and he went down to the Twin Cities on a scholarship and played three seasons for the Gophers. He was the team’s most valuable player in his junior year. In fact, he was high point man in Madison Square Garden on his birthday, December 28, 1940.
While at the University of Minnesota, Dad met a girl who served sodas at a drugstore just off campus. They were married within a couple of years, while my Dad was in flight training for the Navy, and spent the next 69 years together.
After the war, they came back to South Dakota.
My dad had been thinking about a career in the Navy, but his dad asked him to come back and run the family hardware store. My dad said that his heart sank, but he knew what he had to do. So he came home and went to work for his dad.
The hardware store struggled, so dad eventually went back to school to get a teaching degree. All parents are teachers for their kids, but my parents were my teachers several times over. Kids usually get a break from their parents when they’re at school, but my dad was a teacher at my high school. He was also a coach. And the athletic director. And he drove the bus. And my mom was the school librarian. So it’s safe to say my brothers and sister and I were pretty much always under the watchful eye of my parents. I never had my dad for a class, but my brother Rich did. Rich was the valedictorian of his high school class, and the only B he got in high school was from my dad. That was Dad for you.
He never showed any preference or gave any of his kids better treatment than anybody else. In fact, some of us might argue that he gave us a harder time because we were his kids! He believed very firmly that you had to earn your achievements. As a coach, my dad taught us about being a team player. He made it clear that being on a team was not about building your personal statistics but about making the players around you better. It’s a lesson I’ve carried throughout my life, and one I try to live by every day.
A few years ago, the Jones County School District named the auditorium in Murdo after my dad in recognition of his service and achievements at the school. It was particularly special since my dad was one of the volunteers who originally built the auditorium. My dad told me that he was more scared up on the scaffolding of that building than he’d ever been flying off a carrier during World War II.
You might think that with my dad as a coach and athletic director, sports were the main focus around our house, and they certainly were a big part of our lives. But my mom was determined that we would grow up to be well-rounded people, and my dad always supported her in that. They worked hard to ensure that we grew up with a perspective on life that went beyond just the latest sporting event. Mom made us study piano and, during the summers, come in from outside and read for an hour every day. We complained at the time, but I know that all of us today are grateful to her and my father for that.
Mom and Dad made a good team – Mom was an optimist and Dad was a pessimist – or, as he’d put it, a realist – and they really balanced each other. We didn’t have material riches growing up, but we were beyond rich in those things that money can’t buy but that lend purpose, joy, and meaning to life. All of us Thune kids are very grateful for that heritage.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention something that was life-changing for my parents, and that was their strong faith in Christ. My dad has always had real discernment and wisdom – in no small part because of his daily dependence upon God in his life. He’s always prayed for wisdom, and God has blessed him with it.
Dad, thank you for the example of faith, integrity, character, and humility you’ve given to me and Bob and Rich and Karen and Tim. Thank you for faithfully serving God’s purpose for your generation, and happy 100th birthday.
(Audio/ video available here.)