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     Game changer: “A person or thing that dramatically changes the course, strategy, character, etc., of something.” –

Both men entered this world in 1948, and graduated from the University of South Dakota School of Law in 1974.

Each began his law practice in Yankton.

And, over many decades, both changed South Dakota’s landscape in two high profile and important fields: education and health care.

This summer, both are retiring, and though it comes as no surprise, their exits from large, public stages leaves me with an indefinable sense of loss. Sure, successors will be found, but can John Porter and Jim Abbott actually be replaced?

All too often, it seems, we’re so busy living that we lose track of life. We don’t fully see the significance of what individuals like Porter and Abbott have given to our state until later, when we look back through the long lens of our existence.

Think of Porter’s contribution.  From that Yankton law practice, he moved to a key position with Presentation Health System, which he was instrumental in merging with the Benedictine Sisters to create Avera Health. By all accounts, it was a major achievement. Today, as CEO, he oversees more than 300 health-care facilities in 103 communities in five states.

Say what you will about the consolidation of hospitals in our state (and I have, more than once) it is a natural progression of the health care delivery system. And besides, someone or something had to offer an alternative to all those buildings with Denny Sanford’s name on them.  John Porter, always forward-looking, knew this, and met the challenge.

Imagine being responsible for not just the bricks and mortar, but more than 13,100 employees and making sure that your non-profit continues to be competitive and cutting edge.

No wonder his hair grayed over the years.

And Abbott, USD president for the past 21 years, led an energetic effort to take USD to new heights. As USA Today founder and USD alumnus Al Neuharth said more than once, Abbott was the best USD president of all time. Many agree with him.

Abbott brought with him an entrepreneurial spirit and years of business success when he took over the helm.  As a college president, his unusual background turned out to be an asset. The USD Foundation during its Campaign South Dakota raised a record $134 million for scholarships, research and building renovations, followed by the present Onward campaign that has raised $250 million with a year to go. It was Abbott in 2006 who pushed for USD’s transition from NCAA Division II to Division I, thus ensuring a higher level of competition for the university. During Abbott’s tenure, student enrollment has flourished.

The similarities also include their approach to family. Despite demanding schedules, friends of both men say that being a good husband and father was a fundamental value. Work, however important, didn’t replace taking care of the home front.

For all the parallels, the men are very different. Porter likes Harley Davidson motorcycles; Abbott prefers Jaguar sports cars. Porter kicks back at his cabin in Custer, while Abbott can be found relaxing on Nantucket. Porter is hyper-organized and low profile. Abbott served in the state Legislature and ran for governor.

Yanktonian Jim Means, a friend to both, believes part of their success is because “they can see the big picture. They don’t get bogged down with details.”  And while their personalities are different, “both have a great sense of humor.”

These two homegrown success stories – Abbott from Yankton, and Porter from Pierre – have worked to South Dakota’s everlasting benefit. They could have gone elsewhere and made their mark.

I’m glad they stuck around.

April 11, 2018