George McGovern accomplished more than most could ever dream in his lifetime: as a war hero, a congressman and presidential nominee.
But he was so much more than all that, his family and friends said at the late senator's memorial service Friday in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Thousands turned out for the service at the Washington Pavilion of Arts and Science, reflecting solemnly and at other times laughing at tales from McGovern's remarkable life while lauding his inherent decency, compassion and conviction. The staunch liberal died Sunday at age 90.
"George McGovern was a great man," said U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat who wasn't related to George but came to know him well over several decades. "But more importantly, he was a very, very good one."
Several family members spoke at Friday's service, which came a day after a public viewing at the First United Methodist Church in Sioux Falls and comes before McGovern's eventual burial in Washington at the Rock Creek Cemetery. Some of them read from the Bible, with son-in-law Jim Rowen recounting stories from McGovern's childhood and the politician's lifelong love affair with baseball's St. Louis Cardinals.
Numerous politicians, past and present, also addressed the crowd. They recalled McGovern's years as a distinguished fighter pilot during World War II, a history professor at his alma mater of Dakota Wesleyan University, a Democratic leader in his home state and on Capitol Hill, and his run as his party's presidential nominee in 1972 - losing every state except for Massachusetts to Richard Nixon.
Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was among those who said they believed the United States would have been better off had McGovern won that election. Jim McGovern joked that perhaps his close friend was a winner after all, now that he has joined his late wife and two late children in heaven.
"Deep down, I know George McGovern is in a better place. He’s with Eleanor, he’s with Terry and Steve. Who knows, he may even be president," the congressman said, eliciting a hearty laugh from the crowd.
His legacy, several speakers said, was not necessarily his political accomplishments but his decades-long fight against hunger and poverty and for world peace. McGovern was a decent, generous, kind man who never hesitated to stand up for what he thought was right, even if it wasn't popular or convenient, they said.
"Nations, even great nations, sometimes require a voice of conscience," said former Sen. Gary Hart, D-Colorado. "George McGovern was the voice of conscience for our nation in our time."