After five years of home ownership, we are back to living in someone else’s house. And not just anyone’s house.
The George in question is former US Senator George McGovern, the most prominent politician in South Dakota’s history. Although most often remembered for his failed 1972 presidential campaign—a landslide loss marked by the Nixon-authorized break-in at the Watergate Hotel—McGovern was a tireless humanitarian, and the voice of the Democratic Party’s liberal conscience for five decades. Not only is he the subject of a Wikipedia article; he deserves it.
A view of the McGovern house, where the Van Meters currently reside.
McGovern never owned the house I now live in. Dakota Wesleyan bought it from a Mitchell church and offered it to the university’s favorite son after his retirement. The McGoverns lived there off and on for about eight years near the end of their lives. After that, it became a dorm. Now it is once again a parsonage.
Officially, DWU refers to it as the McGovern house. But when I tell long-time staffers where I live, they say, “Oh! You’re in George’s place.”
The different terminology is significant. From an official standpoint, DWU wants to respect the Senator and his legacy. McGovern was important. McGovern belonged to everybody, to the ages.
But George was more than a powerful Washington persona. George was a brilliant yet approachable old man who was like a grandfather to the campus. When George was out and about, he conversed about the most important topics with whoever would engage him. Upon the death of his beloved Ursa, the giant black Newfoundland that was his constant companion after his wife’s death, the campus paper wrote an obituary.
Living in George’s house hasn’t brought with it any unusual pressures. Most of my congregation is made up of college students who were in high school when George died. Those that do remember him understand that I’m not George—that nobody is George—and they don’t expect me to be.
But living in George’s house has made me consider the notion of legacy, and how we get it wrong.
Most of the time, when I hear someone talk about legacy, it’s a matter of what they will leave behind when they die. Kids and grandkids. Businesses and buildings. Stories and snapshots. Legacy is a matter of how we will be remembered, or how we will remember those we care about.
As I walk the halls in George’s house, though, I’m realizing that such a definition of legacy is not only limited, but also frightfully self-serving. Attempts to control our legacy or to define someone else’s are inherently narcissistic.
In truth, legacy is not a static inheritance, whether bestowed or received. Rather, legacy is investment of one generation in those that follow it, who must in turn refine it and pass it down again.
True legacy is not about monuments, but about momentum. It’s about staying on the continuum. About letting go of our need to be remembered and instead working for a better world, regardless of whether or not our names resound within it.
I will never be McGovern, the social and political activist. That mantle is for someone else to take up.
But as I live in George’s house, I can’t help but feel responsible for living as a better citizen of this community. For as long as I’m here, I am tasked with inviting others into gracious conversation about things that really matter. That’s a part of George’s legacy that resonates with me, something I think I can live into.
In a few weeks, the house at 1200 McGovern Avenue will be buzzing again. My kids will be playing in the back yard. Students and staffers from DWU will be gathering with us for meals and games and general life sharing. It will feel more like my house by then, I’m sure.
But it will also always be George’s house, and rightly so. It is a tangible reminder of the legacy he passed on, and that I hope to contribute to, and that I hope someday to hand off to whomever is next.