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'Wild Bill,' a man of action
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Bill Janklow responded quickly to a tornado that hit Spencer, S.D. in 1998. Janklow simultaneously played the all-caring governor, the hard-driving boss and the supreme micro-manager. (Photo courtesy of the Argus Leader)

Sioux Falls, S.D. — South Dakotans call him "Wild Bill" Janklow, and everyone has a Wild Bill story. Like when he grabbed an automatic weapon to join the police and help end a hostage standoff at the state Capitol. He emerged from the building only after police had the suspect in custody.

Janklow loved to win -- whether in court, or in a political debate. He buried opponents under the sheer force of his words and the power of his ideas. And he loved action.

When a tornado nearly destroyed the small town of Spencer, South Dakota in May 1998, Janklow raced the storm in his car to get there.

While weather watchers called it the perfect storm, political observers called it classic Bill Janklow. He simultaneously played the all-caring governor, the hard-driving boss and the supreme micro-manager. Standing amid the Spencer rubble the day after the tornado, Janklow took charge.

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Image Spencer Mayor Donna Ruden

"We need to work with each family to go through the rubble, to find their mementos, to find their possessions, to find their pictures, their valuables -- whatever that can be found -- before we haul the town away," he said at the time.

Janklow moved to Spencer for a week, sleeping in his camper and supervising the recovery down to the smallest details -- even giving residents directions over a bullhorn.

"Folks, at 2:30 this afternoon we're going to let you bring in your vehicles to load your personal effects. If you need help we'll have help here to give you a hand getting stuff loaded," he announced.

Janklow brought prison inmates to Spencer to help rebuild the town. Spencer Mayor Donna Ruden says Janklow literally saved the town of 350.

"Without him we would have probably been in chaos. People would have left town, not cleaned up any of the property," Ruden says. "Whereas he had people come in and help us clean up and get back on our feet, start us over again."

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Image Spencer today

But even in his finest moments, the seeds of his undoing were present. The morning after the storm, Janklow described how he arrived in Spencer less than an hour after the tornado departed. "You got here awful quick last night. Were you in the area?" a reporter asked him.

"No, I was east of Sioux Falls at home. But they told me that a tornado was about to slam into this community. So I immediately headed west," Janklow responded.

Janklow lives in Brandon, 50 miles from Spencer. He described how the high winds blew his truck into a ditch. He managed to drive out and continue. He drove fast. All the while, Janklow says he was on the radio.

"I started mobilizing the emergency effort, while I was driving down the highway, on the radio. I had the prisoners rolling before I got here, and I had the National Guard called," Janklow said at the time. "I had a lot of things going on while it took me 35, 40 minutes to drive here."

In fact, during his manslaughter investigation, evidence showed that in the aftermath of the tornado he ran a stop sign, and almost crashed into a car near Spencer.

Bill Janklow liked to move fast -- in his car, and in his life. He made decisions quickly and stuck to them. His politics were the same as his personality -- hurry up, take chances, clean up the mistakes later. He had no room for doubters. With Bill Janklow, you were either on his side -- the right side -- or against him.

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