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Walter Charles Conahan

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Walter Charles Conahan Obituary
Elder statesman Walter Charles Conahan, whose distinguished public service career for his beloved state and nation left an enduring impact at South Dakota State University, in Pierre, S.D., and Washington, D.C., died Saturday, April 18, 2015, at his Sioux Falls home.

The Leola, S.D., native would have turned 88 on Monday, April 20. He had lived with cancer for the past five years.

Mr. Conahan spent 25 years as a senior staff member for the United States Senate, U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Commerce Department and National Transportation Safety Board in Washington before returning to South Dakota to serve for 13 years as the first full-time director of the South Dakota State University Foundation and director of University Relations.

He was press secretary to U.S. Sen. Karl E. Mundt (R-S.D.) and chief of staff for U.S. Rep. James Abdnor (R-S.D.). Later, while leading the SDSU Foundation, the voters of Brookings County elected Mr. Conahan to three terms in the South Dakota State Senate.

A lifelong, loyal Republican, Mr. Conahan was a champion of integrity, bipartisanship, civility and compromise, always consistent with society's best interests.

Mr. Conahan was an effective mentor, gifted teacher and confidante to contemporaries, colleagues and other "students" who emulated his qualities. Friends and admirers said Mr. Conahan was widely respected for his wisdom, his judgment, his love of life, his optimism, exemplary character, his decency, kindness and humility. Many of those who learned from Mr. Conahan's example, successfully applied those lessons in their personal lives and their careers as government, business and community leaders.

Mr. Conahan was born April 20, 1927, to parents Nina (Martinson) and Perry Conahan in Leola, S.D., where he, and his younger brother, Lee, grew up during the Great Depression. They helped in the family restaurant business, living in their home on the second floor above Perry's Cafe.

After graduating from Leola High School in 1945, Mr. Conahan volunteered for the draft and entered the U.S. Army in September 1945. Following training and completion of Army Finance School, he was deployed to the Philippine Islands, serving under overall command of General Douglas MacArthur. He was on active duty in the Philippines and joined in the celebration when that nation achieved its independence from the United States, on July, 4, 1946.

Mr. Conahan was a 1952 journalism graduate and distinguished alumnus of South Dakota State University. As an undergraduate, he was president of the student body, editor of the campus newspaper and the first student to publicly portray "Weary Willie," the mascot of SDSU's annual Hobo Day homecoming observance.

Upon earning a Bachelor of Science degree, Mr. Conahan became associate editor of the Clear Lake Courier operated by publisher T.R. Burgess, one of the legendary South Dakota weekly newspaper owners, where he worked for three years.

Mr. Conahan accepted a job offer from South Dakota First District Congressman Harold O. Lovre in summer 1955 and moved to Washington, D.C.

Later positions in the Nation's Capital included: service with New York Congressman R. Walter Riehlman; 14 years as press secretary for U.S. Sen. Karl E. Mundt; three years as chief of staff for then-Rep. James Abdnor; and assignments in the federal Executive Branch. He was the executive director and later acting co-chairman of the U.S. Commerce Department's Old West Regional Economic Development Commission. Prior to returning to Capitol Hill to join Congressman Abdnor's staff, he was the legislative affairs officer for the National Transportation Safety Board. Mr. Conahan also was vice-president of the U.S. Senate Press Secretaries Association. Mr. Conahan's distinguished government service earned him recognition by the publication "Who's Who in Politics."

Walter Conahan married Marjorie Dean of LaMoure, N.D., in 1957. Marjorie was a member of the North Dakota U.S. Sen. Milton Young's Washington staff when she met Walter. Their daughter, Christy, was born in 1958 in Washington.

The Conahans moved back to South Dakota in 1978 when he became the first full-time executive director of the SDSU Foundation and director of development for SDSU. Near the end of his 13 years there, an additional responsibility was added when he was named director of University Relations.

While at SDSU and living in Volga, Mr. Conahan was elected to three terms in the State Senate, beginning in 1982. He ran for his third term without opposition.

Following retirement from SDSU, Mr. Conahan was selected as a "Distinguished Alumnus" of the University in recognition of the development of a multimillion dollar endowment for the Foundation and for his service in Washington and in Pierre.

Mr. Conahan was a member of First Presbyterian Church in Sioux Falls. He was a Paul Harris Fellow in Rotary International, former president of the Brookings Rotary Club and a past board member of the Sioux Falls Downtown Rotary Club, where he conscientiously attended meetings until the week of his death.

Mr. Conahan was on the board of the Karl Mundt Foundation, the Museum of Visual Materials and, previously, on the SDSU Prairie Repertory Theatre board. He was a member of the American Legion since 1946, affiliated with the Roy S. Hickman Post in Leola.

Mr. Conahan's immediate family includes his wife of 57 years, Marjorie Dean Conahan, daughter Christy Green, son-in-law Ron Green and granddaughter Heather Barthelman, all of Sioux Falls. Also surviving are a large extended family and Ron Green's children, Tammy (Doug) Prins, Brady (Debra) Green and their families.

Visitation, with family present, will be 5 to 8 p.m., Friday, April 24, at Heritage Funeral Home, 4800 S. Minnesota Ave., Sioux Falls. Funeral services will be 10 a.m., Saturday, April 25, at First Presbyterian Church, 2300 S. West Ave, Sioux Falls. A luncheon will follow.

Memorial gifts may be designated for the Conahan Scholarship Endowment at the SDSU Foundation, 815 Medary Ave., Box 525, Brookings, SD 57007.

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Published in The Argus Leader from Apr. 19 to Apr. 22, 2015
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