PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The flags outside South Dakota’s Capitol will fly at half-staff on Saturday in remembrance of a former lawmaker from Minnehaha County who made history in her home state and went on to serve in the nation’s White House as an aide to a U.S. president.

Debra Anderson will be laid to rest in Farina, Illinois, the boyhood home of her husband, John Milne. She died November 10. Anderson was the first, and so far only, woman to hold the gavel as speaker for the South Dakota House of Representatives. That was in 1987-88.

But it would not be the peak of her career.

The next year, she accepted an invitation from President George H.W. Bush to be his administration’s liaison to the nation’s governors as the White House director of intergovernmental affairs. President Bush also hired state Senator Mary McClure of Redfield, who was the first woman to serve as South Dakota Senate president pro tem, to assist Anderson.

From her White House office, Anderson helped another South Dakota lawmaker, Knute Knudson Jr. of Rapid City, make the move to Washington, D.C., too, with a job at the U.S. Department of Interior. Knudson soon was deputy chief of staff to Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan, whose department oversaw the nation’s Indian tribes.

In 1988, Congress had passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act that opened the way for tribal casinos — and would put Knudson, who had been a municipal planner, on a new career path. He returned to Rapid City to work for Sodak Gaming and eventually gambling giant IGT as a key link to tribal governments.

Knudson was the 2018 recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the National Indian Gaming Association for his work with tribal governments on gambling. Last year he was inducted in the American Gaming Association’s (AGA) Gaming Hall of Fame.

“She made all the difference in my life,” Knudson said about Anderson.

Debra Rae Anderson was born June 13, 1949, and grew up at Bryant, South Dakota, population 624 at the time. The daughter of Hamlin County farmers Dean and Marilyn Anderson, she graduated summa cum laude from Augustana College in Sioux Falls in 1971. Five years later, she won a seat in the state House. That January marked the first of 13 winters that she would make the three-plus hours drive to and from the Capitol in Pierre.

Dave Munson of Sioux Falls won election to the House two years later. He and Anderson came from the same legislative district. “I thought she did a heckuva job,” said Munson, who stepped down after 24 years as a legislator because he had been elected mayor. “She had a nice personality. She got along with everyone. You didn’t want to get her the wrong way, though.”

An example came late in 1986, after the election and after she had been chosen as speaker. Cigarette and cigar smoking was still allowed in South Dakota’s Capitol during Anderson’s time in the Legislature, and she was a frequent smoker. As speaker, Anderson assigned where representatives sat in the House chamber. To subtly punish a lawmaker whose votes didn’t routinely follow the Republican line, and who happened to suffer a breathing problem, Anderson made her be the seatmate of a representative who routinely smoked at his desk.

“Her forte was politics,” said Harry Christianson of Rapid City. The first time he saw Anderson in the 70s, she was working as a Holiday Inn barmaid in Sioux Falls and Christianson was working for the state attorney general’s office in Pierre. “Smart as a whip.”

After Attorney General Bill Janklow won the 1978 election for governor, Christianson moved down to the governor’s office with him. Anderson had already served two years in the House and understood how to fit in a male-dominated chamber. “She’s a team player and she was smart. Back in those days, team playing was rewarded,” Christianson recalled.

She fit in so well that the House Republican caucus elected her as speaker for the 1987-88 term. “No one made a big deal at that time about her being the first woman to be speaker of the House. There hasn’t been one since,” Christianson said. “That’s a big deal in my mind. At the time I don’t think it registered as a big deal. That tells you how good she was at what she was doing.”

Her father, Dean Anderson, won election to the state House in 1980. He continued to serve as a lawmaker until September 22, 1989, when President Bush appointed him as South Dakota director for the federal Agriculture Conservation and Stabilization Service.

Jan Nicolay of Sioux Falls won election to the South Dakota House in 1982 and, during the 14 years she served as a lawmaker, rose to become the first woman to chair the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee that decided how state government’s annual budget should be allocated.

“Deb was a strong, knowledgeable, and fair speaker.  One could not ask for a better woman to be the first female speaker.  She set a high standard, one we can be proud of,” Nicolay said.

Anderson was one of just 10 women among the 105 legislators when she was first won in 1976. Twenty-three elections later, there will be a record 31 women serving when the 2023 legislative session opens January 10.

Her occupations shifted election to election, from waitress and part-time real estate sales, to public relations and advertising, to executive assistant at a Sioux Falls auto company. Scott Heidepriem of Miller was speaker pro tem in 1985-86 and would have risen, under House tradition, to speaker the following term. But he ran for the U.S. House instead, and Anderson ran for, and won, the open spot for speaker.

Anderson was a friend of Janklow, who backed Bush’s candidacy for president. Anderson liked Bush’s politics and the alliance between them grew. After Bush won election in November 1988 came an offer to work in the White House that Anderson accepted.

“I remember the day we helped her pack a trailer to go to DC. Governor Janklow joined us for breakfast at Perkins on North Cliff and we all waved good-by as she drove east on the interstate,” Nicolay said.

As a host in Washington, D.C., Anderson was “the best,” according to Nicolay. “She arranged for two of us visiting her to attend the Kennedy Center with her and sit in the President of the US seats. Everything had the president’s seal on it. We were impressed and managed to ‘borrow’ a couple of souvenirs.  She also arranged a tour of the White House including the Oval Office. 

“The Deb in D.C. was the same person as the Deb in South Dakota — down to earth, candid, and thoughtful.  So glad I had the opportunity to serve with her and know her as a friend,” Nicolay said.

Anderson recruited Knudson to help elect Bush. “She was an excellent speaker but she also got me involved in the Bush campaign,” Knudson said. He accompanied her to Bush’s inauguration. On that cold day, tears came to her eyes when ‘Hail to the Chief’ was played. The next day, Knudson dropped her off at the White House for her formal interview. He still can hear her voice after the meeting. “She said, they want me, and you will not believe where the office is. It’s in the West Wing.”

It was during her time in the White House that Anderson met her future husband. John Milne was a lobbyist for Minnesota-based 3M. They married August 8, 1992 at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls. They moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where Anderson worked for Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson as commissioner of administration in 1993-94.

The couple moved back to Washington, D.C., in 1998 and became landlord for a top member of Congress, then-Representative John Boehner of Ohio, the U.S. House speaker from 2011 until October 2015; he rented their home’s basement apartment. “They knew each other well,” Knudson said.

Then-U.S. Representative Kristi Noem became the first woman elected as South Dakota’s governor in 2018. Noem issued the directive that flags would be lowered December 10, as is current practice for all legislators upon their deaths, but also put out a statement from her office. “I got to know Deb and her husband, John, well over the years. She broke a glass ceiling for women in our state,” Noem said, adding that Anderson “had a true servant’s heart” and that “she would be missed.”

Knudson and his wife, Penny, who now live in Reno, Nevada, stayed in touch with Anderson and Milne after their move back to Washington, D.C., through phone calls and later text messages. One of the last times they were to get together, Anderson replied that she couldn’t make it. He heard from mutual friends that her health was failing.

“It’s just so shocking and so sad. It’s like the end of an era,” Knudson said. “I did not expect to hear we lost Deb.”