In 1971 a 28-year old man became the youngest mayor of Rapid City. His two terms were pressure packed times of natural disaster and civil unrest. Catholic Social Services chose to award former Mayor Don Barnett with the Msgr. William O’Connell Founder’s Award for his work following the 1972 flood and the 1973 American Indian Movement demonstrations on Main St.
Barnett was instrumental in getting a new fire station, Central High School and the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center going.
Rev. Larry Dahlstrom, former pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church and a classmate of Barnett, gave the first testimonial. “He gave his heart and soul to leading Rapid City through the aftermath of the flood of ’72, the American Indian Movement confrontation and lots of other challenges which confronted him,” he said.
The second speaker was longtime friend Ozzie Osheim, who met Barnett when they both attended Trinity Lutheran Church. “As a youngster Don had to overcome a severe stuttering problem, later he wrote a book about that experience in an effort to assist others who may have the same problem,” he said. “When Don was inducted into the S.D. Hall of Fame in 2011, my wife and I were honored to be Don’s guests at that function.”
The third testimonial came from Kay Rippentrop, she worked in the mayor’s office for 42 years serving 10 mayors. Rippentrop recalled Barnett won the city election in a run off by 160 votes. “The young mayor shook things up,” she said, recalling his two terms. She remembered when the Rapid City flood hit, he worked for days without sleep to get the city operating. He had the help of the Rapid City Ministerial Association, city employees, FEMA, the Salvation Army and a group of Mennonite volunteers who came to Rapid City to lend a hand.
Rippentrop said she has kept in touch with Barnett over the years. “We look back and are very appreciative things turned out so well.”
The award was presented by CSS Board President Susan Raposa and CSS executive Director Jim Kinyon. When Barnett spoke, he took the attention off himself and told how grateful he was for the wisdom of Msgr. William O’Connell and the assistance of others during his terms in office. He gave a vivid account of the flood, AIM members protesting in 1973, and Rapid City citizens who drove to work with shotguns in their trunks. He relied on church leaders and business owners to calm the people.
“(Then-Father William O’Connell) believed we had so many challenges in Rapid City and that each one was a challenge to Christian brotherhood. We called on him first many times.
“On the night of June 9, 1972, everything went wrong 238 times (referring to flood casualties). During the night there was terror, loss of life and loss of dreams,” said Barnett.
As part of the recovery efforts Rev. Dahlstrom and Fr. O’Connell worked with the Rapid City Ministerial Association to create Church Disaster Response. During the racial tensions he said Father O’Connell continually advocated against meeting anger with violence.