Preserving "A Fair Chance For a Free People" - Karl E. Mundt

The Educator

In 1923, Karl accepted a position as principal and teacher at Bryant High School in Bryant, South Dakota. During his first year there, he taught speech, psychology, sociology, and government. In addition, he coached the debate, oratory, and extemporaneous speech teams and began a school newspaper, the Harbinger, which eventually won many statewide awards. Mundt served under Bryant Superintendent of Schools Dr. N. E. Steele. Although he maintained loyalty to Steele, he disagreed with Steele's educational methods. Unlike Steele, a passive progressive who often dismissed classes early on warm, sunny spring days, Mundt was known for discipline and preparation, especially in reference to his debate team. Mundt was soon able to flex his disciplinary muscles however. First Campaign He was promoted to superintendent after Steele accepted the presidency at Sioux Falls College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. At the beginning of his first year, he commanded a strict and well-enforced policy.1

During the mid-1920's, some considered high school inconsequential for young men, believing it would be more productive for them to spend their time working on the farm and not in the classroom. As superintendent of Bryant School, Mundt was responsible for recruiting students and generating interest and support of education. In 1925, Mundt wrote "What Have You in Your Tool Kit?"-the first booklet in what would become a series of three. It was published by the Bryant Board of Education and stressed scholarship and education. According to A Fair Chance for a Free People, the central pitch of 'What Have You in Your Tool Kit?' was that an educated person makes more money than an uneducated one."1 In the booklet, he created an analogy comparing an educated person to an educated carpenter. First CampaignAn uneducated carpenter cannot afford any tools for his toolkit and would therefore be repeatedly denied employment. Mundt stated that tools could not only be hammers, saws, and nails, but also knowledge, skills, and abilities.2 This first pamphlet was followed up with "Facts and Figures about Bryant's Biggest Industry" and "How Much Are You Worth?"3

Karl and Mary were active at Bryant for four years. In addition to serving as superintendent, Mundt also coached debate and oratory; Mary taught declamation and drama. Together, the couple strived to improve Bryant High School and education for young people. Karl's approach to teaching was imaginative, unique, and enjoyed by his students. They often competed to sit in his "Sunshine Row": the front row of desks reserved for students with a 92 percent or higher. The Mundts kept busy during the summers of the Bryant years as well. Every year, the couple packed their coupe and moved to New York City, where they attended Columbia University. In only four summers of study, Karl completed a Master of Arts degree in Teaching and Educational Administration, and Mary completed a Master of Arts degree in English.4

First Campaign

During his years at Bryant, word began to spread about Mundt's speaking skills. While audiences in and around Northfield were accustomed to hearing speeches about virtuous living and Christian example, Mundt was known as a bombastic, entertaining, yet informative speaker with a tone and content unlike any other. He initially gave addresses in the Hamlin County Region that mixed church and state themes regularly. Often, he featured statistics, such as crime and contentment rates. His speeches were well received, and he soon became a valuable asset to both the community and high school in Bryant.5

As the years passed, the Mundts began to prepare themselves for a move. When positions became available at Eastern State Normal College (later General Beadle State, then Dakota State College, and now Dakota State University) in Madison, SD, they both accepted. Karl, already known around campus as an innovative teacher, headed the speech department and taught psychology and economics; Mary instructed drama and French.6

Once again, First Campaign Mundt occupied his time with various clubs, organizations, and businesses. His speech teams surpassed expectations each time they competed; in 1930 he took five speakers to a national Pi Kappa Delta contest, a speech fraternity he had helped create, and finished one of two universities that placed three contestants in the final round. In the nine years he coached, his students earned high marks in both state and national competitions.7

Mundt also pursued a business career while at Eastern. He became junior partner in his father's business, Mundt Loan and Investment Company. Their business, giving loans to home owners and selling them to investors, did well until the government began the Home Owners Loan Corporation during the Depression. The company survived, but never thrived as they did early on.7

According to A Fair Chance for a Free People, "In addition to the family business, Karl and his friend Joe Ryan, in the late 1920s, organized the Mundt-Ryan Institute for business and professional people desiring more effective speech."7 The instituted taught courses in areas such as conversation or speech, and then rewarded students with diplomas and graduation ceremonies.7

In addition to speech, Mundt took an interest in literary organizations. He and his wife became active in the South Dakota Poetry Society, and he even gave a keynote address at one of the meetings. During the Mundts' three summers at Eastern, the couple traveled to the Rocky Mountains to meet with the Writers' Colony from the University of Colorado. Mundt took over the program director position of the colony, and their experience within the organization would leave an impression upon the couple that would last a lifetime. The Writers' Colony gave the Mundts their first exposure to communists and organized communism. Both Karl and Mary regularly reflected about the colony much later in life, he during speeches, and she in a newsletter for the National Federation of Women's Republican Club.7

In 1932, Mundt began speaking about politics and the Republican Party in particular, but his initial experience was unintentional. During the campaign for Royal C. Johnson, the South Dakota congressman asked Mundt to give a short pitch at the end of his speech in Elk Point. Mundt complied, but the crowd heckled him. According to A Fair Chance for a Free People, "Mundt told an interviewer years later that he liked the feeling caused by the political speech, regardless of whether the speech was favored or not."8 His interest in political speaking blossomed, but the President of Eastern Normal was not as pleased. He criticized Mundt, but the speaker ignored the complaints and continued to orate on political subjects. Eventually the regents discussed the issue and considered relieving Mundt of his position at the college. Mundt was quoted saying, "Fire me in the morning. The best news time is at noon, and I'm going to tell the people of South Dakota that the Democrats have violated academic freedom."8 Despite the hearing, Mundt continued to teach at Eastern for several years subsequently.8 Karl Mundt

By the end of that same year, Mundt was known as a rising political star in addition to his credible speaking career and his passion for conservation. He was elected governor of the Kiwanis district, which included the Dakotas and Minnesota. During this time, he helped organize and establish the South Dakota Young Republican League, which held its first meeting in Madison, South Dakota in September of 1933. By 1935, the organization was well-established and printed its own party newspaper.8

In the midst of his budding political career, Mundt considered college presidency, but he knew it to be improbable. He had never acquired a Ph.D., and his ambition had depleted his chances of promotion in the educational field. Besides, his growing popularity in the political realm and increased exposure in speaking engagements only spelled one thing: politics was not only inevitable, it seemed predestined.9

The Politician

In 1934, Karl Mundt was urged to run for governor, but he declined. Those who knew him knew he was fated for politics: he was a natural born leader, ambitious, an enthusiastic South Dakotan, an outstanding speaker, and an activist for public interests.9 Two years later he was mentioned as a candidate in the South Dakota Senate race, but it would have required him to challenge incumbent William J. Burlow. Mundt opted to enter the Congressional race against Fred H. Hildebrandt for the First District seat instead. The seat in Congress would involve a broader environment, and Mundt enjoyed traveling and speaking to people from various areas across the country.10

Mundt formally announced his candidacy on January 10, 1936. He was the first candidate to come from Lake County in both state and national races. He announced himself as a constitutional progressive: "In my Republicanism, I am what I choose to call a "constitutional progressive.' By "constitutional progressive,' I mean that I favor moving forward toward greater social security by the regulation of monopolies by Federal jurisdiction..."11 The minimum number of signatures needed on a nomination petition was 1,835, but Mundt acquired 4,294 and was the first to file his petition on March 31; Arthur H. Hasche of Watertown also sought the Republican nomination. His popularity stemmed from his activity in various organizations (i.e. the Kiwanis club and Izaak Walton League) and his attractive personality.12

Karl Mundt Campaign

The election of 1936 was not only important for South Dakota, but it would also be significant nationally because the political parties were in flux. Agriculture, nationalism, and the New Deal were the major issues in South Dakota. The Depression, severe drought, and grasshoppers left the state in distress. These conditions influenced the candidates and the platforms of each. According to A Fair Chance for a Free People, [Hildebrandt] "had first been elected along with [President] Roosevelt in 1932 and made no secret of his support for the entire New Deal."13 Mundt represented a completely different approach. He complete opposed the New Deal, calling it unconstitutional, and presented an original farm program entitled, "A Permanent Farm Program For a Prosperous Farm People." This program demanded restoration of high tariffs and an increase in commodity loans. Mundt supported irrigation of the Missouri River, reduced seed and feed loan rates, lower crop insurance, and minimum pricing on farmers' products. This liberal approach to farming was influenced by Mundt's own experience on the farm. He stated, "Both from my own farm in Lake County and as a result of countless conferences with farmers and farm leaders, I have learned from personal contact the value of the ten points in my Fair Chance Program for Agriculture."14

Mundt discussed other issues in his platform. He advocated workers' right to organize and bargain collectively, and proposed a tariff protecting their favor. He wanted to rid Dakota of tax-exempt securities and tax-exempt salaries.14 In general, the Republican Party platform promised to abolish sweatshops and child labor, and to protect women and children in regards to maximum hours, minimum wage, and working conditions.15 He also warned voters of communism and fascism, saying foreign "isms' wanted to create an all-powerful Central State.14

Controversy percolated into the 1936 election as well. Mundt never once mentioned Hildebrandt in his campaign literature, but other sources, such as the Argus Leader, accused Hildebrandt of involvement with communist organizations and associations.14 The allegations grew heated but supporters of Hildebrandt dismissed the charges as mudslinging. Mundt never directly addressed the issues surrounding his opponent, but he regularly warned voters to beware of the threat of communism.16

During the campaign, Mundt gave over 200 speeches. He spent short of $1,200 on advertising, most of which appeared in newspapers. He collected over $1,500 in contributions. Pre-election, the race looked to be very tight, and the numbers post-election agreed. First CampaignAfter over 219,000 votes were tallied, Hildebrandt was re-elected for a third term by only a very slim margin of votes (a little over 2500).16

Shortly after the loss, Mundt resigned as chairman of the Speech Department at Eastern. From there, he became a full-time public speaker. During his campaign, he had made quite an impression throughout the state, and kept in touch with his contacts over the next few years. In 1938, he was back in the thick of it, eager to challenge Democrat Emil Lorkis for the congressional seat from the First District. Observers were not surprised.16

That first defeat never dampened Mundt's spirits. It was clear after the election that Mundt had stood by his own principles and retained his self-respect following the loss. He did not endorse every economic "cure-all' that came along in order to rally votes. The Aberdeen American printed a story after the election entitled, "Karl Mundt is Bound to Make Good in Politics." In it, the author states, "Politics seems to be his forte, and there is no doubt but what he will succeed if he stays in it long enough."15

  1. Heidepriem, Scott. A Fair Chance for a Free People: A Biography of Karl E. Mundt, United States Senator. Madison, SD: Leader Printing, 1988. p. 10.
  2. Heidepriem, Scott. A Fair Chance for a Free People: A Biography of Karl E. Mundt, United States Senator. Madison, SD: Leader Printing, 1988. p. 11-12.
  3. Heidepriem, Scott. A Fair Chance for a Free People: A Biography of Karl E. Mundt, United States Senator. Madison, SD: Leader Printing, 1988. p. 12.
  4. Heidepriem, Scott. A Fair Chance for a Free People: A Biography of Karl E. Mundt, United States Senator. Madison, SD: Leader Printing, 1988. p. 13.
  5. Heidepriem, Scott. A Fair Chance for a Free People: A Biography of Karl E. Mundt, United States Senator. Madison, SD: Leader Printing, 1988. p. 13-14.
  6. Heidepriem, Scott. A Fair Chance for a Free People: A Biography of Karl E. Mundt, United States Senator. Madison, SD: Leader Printing, 1988. p. 14.
  7. Heidepriem, Scott. A Fair Chance for a Free People: A Biography of Karl E. Mundt, United States Senator. Madison, SD: Leader Printing, 1988. p. 15.
  8. Heidepriem, Scott. A Fair Chance for a Free People: A Biography of Karl E. Mundt, United States Senator. Madison, SD: Leader Printing, 1988. p. 16.
  9. Heidepriem, Scott. A Fair Chance for a Free People: A Biography of Karl E. Mundt, United States Senator. Madison, SD: Leader Printing, 1988. p. 17.
  10. Heidepriem, Scott. A Fair Chance for a Free People: A Biography of Karl E. Mundt, United States Senator. Madison, SD: Leader Printing, 1988. p. 18.
  11. DeSmet News. Article clipping. Scrapbook #101. Mundt Archives, Madison, South Dakota.
  12. Scrapbook #101. Mundt Archives, Madison, South Dakota.
  13. Heidepriem, Scott. A Fair Chance for a Free People: A Biography of Karl E. Mundt, United States Senator. Madison, SD: Leader Printing, 1988. p. 19.
  14. Heidepriem, Scott. A Fair Chance for a Free People: A Biography of Karl E. Mundt, United States Senator. Madison, SD: Leader Printing, 1988. p. 20.
  15. Scrapbook #100. Mundt Archives, Madison, South Dakota.
  16. Heidepriem, Scott. A Fair Chance for a Free People: A Biography of Karl E. Mundt, United States Senator. Madison, SD: Leader Printing, 1988. p. 21.
SD State Seal

© Karl E. Mundt Historical & Educational Foundation and Archives, All rights reserved. Karl Mundt Library and Learning Commons
Dakota State University
820 N. Washington, Madison, SD 57042
Phone: (605) 256-5203

DSU