Honors Ceremony Introduction (Youtube)
Honors Ceremony Speech (YouTube)
Christenson grew up a farm boy of Britton, SD. He received a bachelor degree in economics sandwiched around several years in the U.S. Army serving in Panama. He joined DCI in 1963 while Frank Farrar, a lawyer from Britton, was state attorney general. He retired as assistant director and director of operations in 1983.
For Bernie Christenson, receiving recognition into the Hall of Fame is as much for the second, third and fourth acts in his public life – top airplane pilot, political leader and first president of the South Dakota Community Foundation -- as for the two decades he spent protecting South Dakota, during a violent era marked by a surge of drug trafficking and the American Indian Movement insurgency.
Few people, outside of his fellow professionals and some of the lawyers and judges, likely have much knowledge about the many incidents in Christenson’s law enforcement career.
When he subdued AIM leader Russell Means at the Custer courthouse that day in 1973, it was the start of an intense decade in Christenson’s life. They would actually meet again in another confrontation, 17 years later, when Gov. George S. Mickelson went to the Wounded Knee massacre site for the 100-years anniversary. Means didn’t want Mickelson there, because news photographers would want to record the governor’s presence at the Lakota religious ceremony, and went to block Mickelson from attending. The stand-off between two big men was defused, Christenson said, and Mickelson stepped away. Christenson, sitting on the deck of the Pierre house where he and his wife Sally live one afternoon, spoke of Mickelson with great appreciation. He had taught Mickelson to fly and, in the tradition, cut off Mickelson’s shirt-tail after the governor’s first solo.
It was Mickelson who in 1987 asked Christenson to be the head of something new. Mickelson wanted to create the South Dakota Community Foundation. He needed Christenson to raise $5 million to match two large pledges.
Christenson got it done in 11 months, sometimes with Mickelson’s help. By 1997, the foundation had $20 million, with the investment earnings used for grants to help South Dakota projects and groups. Today the foundation has more than $150 million in assets.
Christenson retired from the foundation at the start of 2004. “I always told people the community foundation will be the lasting legacy of George Mickelson,” he said. “That was a life changer for me.”
After he left DCI, Christenson worked for four-plus years at BankWest in Pierre as a vice president overseeing security and personnel. When the family ownership converted the charter from a national bank to a state bank, Christenson left for the foundation job.
He also was a co-owner for 16 years of a flying service based in Pierre. He learned to fly while at SDSU. During his 51 years in the air, he flew or gave instruction to every governor of South Dakota starting with Frank Farrar. As a federal examiner he’s conducted the certification tests for more than 1,700 pilots.
Another direction in his life after DCI was local and state politics. He won election to the Pierre city commission in 1982 and helped lead the eventual winning side in creation of the Ramkota convention center.
He also got the city government out of the liquor store business because the operation was losing money, and he had a very positive relationship with the city’s mayor at the time, Grace Petersen, even though he was a Republican and she was a Democrat. He was one of the pallbearers at her funeral.
In 1984 Christenson won election to the state House of Representatives from the Hughes County district. He won re-election in 1986, the year that Mickelson was elected governor.
Christenson led the 1987 effort in the Legislature to put $2 million of state funding into the community foundation. Another accomplishment was helping convince lawmakers to put the state’s new Cultural Heritage Center – essentially the official state museum and archives – in Pierre.
That November, he resigned to take the foundation job. Mickelson gave Christenson the phone number for the direct line to the governor’s desk and told him to use it whenever needed.
Christenson said one reason he liked George Mickelson so well was because the governor treated him well as a human being. “Wherever he stayed when I was flying him, he had the pilots stay too,” Christenson recalled.
Christenson’s general philosophy on leadership is to “surround yourself with good people.” According to many who know him, he’s been one of those people for a long time, someone others counted on because they knew he would do the right thing.
As Circuit Judge Mark Barnett, a former prosecutor and state attorney general wrote “Simply put, when you had a crisis in those days, you called Bernie.”