VERMILLION, S.D. | My decades-long immersion into Siouxland culture enjoyed a substantial boost one year ago as I witnessed University of South Dakota President Jim Abbott and his family clapping, dancing and greeting fans and friends outside Abbott's home on East Main Street during the 102nd Dakota Days parade.
It was my favorite sight of the entire autumn, maybe the whole year.
Abbott savors said ritual once more this Saturday, stepping with his daughters from a convertible outside his home as the Sound of USD marching band fires up the fight song. Former football coach Joe Glenn, I assume, will take his position on Abbott's front lawn, leading cheers after bursting from the house just having played the song on Abbott's Steinway piano.
And this will be the last time Jim Abbott enjoys the festivities as sitting president. Abbott, the only Coyote grad to serve as top dog here, announced last week he'll retire in June, closing the books on a 20-year tenure, longest of any of 17 USD presidents.
"I turn 70 in June," Abbott told me this week. "I can't do this forever."
The way USD has grown, there are those who wish he might. Enrollment, perhaps the key metric for any university head, has grown on his watch from 7,448 to 10,261. USD's endowment has ballooned from $45 million to $258 million during his tenure.
The university transitioned to NCAA Division I athletics under Abbott's leadership. And, last year, he dedicated the spectacular $66 million Sanford Coyote Sports Center during a volleyball victory on the Friday night of Dakota Days, then crowned Mr. and Miss South Dakota, as he's always done, at halftime of USD's homecoming triumph, a game enjoyed by nearly 10,000 fans.
Looking back, I asked, what leaves him most satisfied about the past two decades at his alma mater?
"I'm very proud that I'll leave an institution that's stronger from a physical standpoint because nearly every building on campus has either been built new, refurbished or renovated," he said.
And, there's this: "A total of 35,148 diplomas have been issued and signed by me, not counting those coming at graduation this spring," he said. "My favorite day here, by far, is graduation day as every kid -- let's call them graduates -- leaves here armed with a document that allows them to move forward as I did in the spring of 1970."
Back then, Abbott headed from USD to Jackson, Minnesota, where he taught high school government and history for one year.
"I was confident in my knowledge of the subject matter, but I had no idea how to motivate those students who weren't particularly interested in history," he said.
The Yankton, South Dakota, native returned to law school here, eventually went into practice and landed a seat in the South Dakota Legislature. He was working as a local attorney, having lost a primary election for the U.S. House of Representatives 21 years ago, when then-USD student body Brendan Johnson approached him at dinner in downtown Vermillion, asking him to apply for the presidential post.
Jim and his wife, Colette, showed they could motivate folks here and changed USD for the better, spending the final 19 years of their 29-year marriage on the USD sidelines, if not at midfield, in the lab, with alums, at center court, or leading the band. Homecoming was a tough one last year for the president, his first without Colette, who died in May 2016, barely one week after being diagnosed with renal cancer.
The couple had talked about his retirement, focusing on a date toward the end of 2017. Colette's death, however, changed the president's thinking. He didn't make any dramatic life decisions in the months immediately following her death.
"I kept working and I think it was the right move," he said.
This month, he concluded, was the time to make his announcement, one that offers South Dakota's Board of Regents ample time to conduct a national search for his successor. It also gives Abbott and his children time to sort out a household of possessions.
"Colette and I accumulated every stick of furniture in that house, and I don't think any of our daughters want a 9-foot high Eastlake mirror," he said with a laugh.
He'll figure all that out while guiding USD through his swan song, as his trusty canine, McGovern, sits by his side. And then?
He doesn't golf, fish, hunt or boat. He regrets he ever took up bowling. As for hobbies, he travels a bit and dabbles in historic preservation.
Minutes before leaving for a Board of Regents meeting, the USD homecoming parade leader clasped his hands behind his head and leaned back in his chair, briefly pondering a life without work.
"I plan to take five or six months off to figure that out," he said with a content smile. "I have options. I don't think I'll flunk retirement."