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It is tough to read and learn about a guy like Joe Foss, without taking a deep look at yourself and wondering… “What am I doing with my life!?”  Joe Foss was just a young man from Sioux Falls, but a look at all of his accomplishments makes it seem like he lived about 10 different lifetimes!  Every citizen of Sioux Falls should recognize Joe Foss as a role model of a full life and an impact made on the world around him!

The Short Version

This is a great story… but a long one!  If you just want to hit the highlights, check out these next two paragraphs (that is as short as I can make it!), but if you have the time I would encourage you to read the whole thing… it is worth it – Joe Foss was a great man, who truly led an amazing life!

I said earlier it seems like Joe led about 10 different lives in his 87 years on this planet… take a look at this resume and see if you agree… He lived the life of the home town farm kid, going to school working on the farm, having supper around the family table by candle light.  After his father passed away, as a teenager he guided his family farm through possibly the worst years to own a farm in US History (the 1930’s)!  He earned his High School diploma and a college degree in about a 2 year stretch while participating in football, track, and boxing, as well as taking flight lessons and logging hours behind the controls.  He would join the Marines after college and wouldn’t you know… become the Ace of World War II downing more enemy fighter aircraft than any other Allied Pilot; and winning a Congressional Medal of Honor in the process!  Why settle down after the war!  Joe left active duty to develop his own flight school and flying service along with opening a Packard Car Dealership back in town!  It wouldn’t be long before the military came calling again and appointed Joe as the Lieutenant colonel in command of the newly established South Dakota Air National Guard, which Foss would literally build from the ground up!  Joe would command his squadron while also flying with the American P-51 Mustangs Air Demonstration Team… you know in his spare time.  During the Korean War, Foss relinquished his command and took over as the Director of Operation and Training for the Central Air Defense Command, eventually reaching the rank of Brigadier General.

Okay take a deep breath… that’s a lot… try to wrap your mind around this… at this point Joe Foss is only… 38 years old!  Okay… let’s keep going!

After leaving active military duty Joe would run for and be elected to two terms as the Governor of South Dakota; taking office as the youngest governor is SD history at the ripe old age of 39!  Of course he parlayed his governorship into a stint as the commissioner of the American Football League, being very active in setting up its merger with the National Football League – meaning he played an active role in creating the media Juggernaut that is the NFL as we know it today!  After football, Foss traded America’s Game for one of its favorite pastimes, spending 7 years as the producer and host of a hunting and fishing show broadcast on ABC Television titled, The American Sportsman.  In the show Foss would travel all over the world fishing and hunting in exotic places and bringing the experience right in to American living rooms all across the country!  As it turns out, being a war hero and hosting your own nationally broadcast hunting show puts you on the radar of the National Rifle Association, where Joe served two consecutive terms as President!  After being on the cover of Time Magazine in 1990, Joe Foss led a quite decade in the 90’s, just to get right back to work in 2001 founding the Joe Foss Institute, a non-profit with a mission of teaching school kids history and civics.  He would run the foundation until he passed away on New Year’s Day 2003!  Joe Foss accomplished all of these big things while also juggling the death of his father and the responsibility of helping his mother and taking care of his younger siblings that came with that, over 20 “flair ups” of malaria from his initial contracting of the disease in WWII, being on the cover of 2 National Magazines, authoring or contributing to 3 books, contributing to movies, television shows, and even computer games as a consultant, his service medals almost cover his entire chest of his service uniform, and he no doubt won the hearts of his fellow man and community.  A life well lived!

If you’re up for reading the whole story… I promise its worth it… check it out below!

The Full Story – Starting In Sioux Falls

The “Joe Foss Story” starts off routinely enough, he was born on April 17, 1915 in a pre-industrial farm house just north of Sioux Falls; as with most homes at the time there was not running water or electricity. At the age of 12, Joe got to see “Lucky Lindy” Charles Lindbergh as he toured the US in his famed Spirit of St. Louis aircraft.  A seed was planted that day… it wasn’t quite an obsession yet… that will come later, but Joe Foss loved seeing that beautiful plane cut through the sky above the old Renner Airstrip, north of Sioux Falls.

At the age of 16, Joe Foss took his first flight; he and his father flew with local celebrity pilot Clyde Ice, out of Black Hills Airport in Spearfish. He led a typical teenage life for the time, helping on the farm, participating in school sports, and dreaming about the future… until tragedy struck.  Before Foss’ 18th birthday his father would be killed in an accident; he had stepped on a downed electrical wire as he stepped out of his car during a storm.

Joe Foss – Sioux Falls Family Man

At this point it seems the story of Joe Foss could have ended.  In fact no one could have blamed him, or spoke a negative word about him if it had!  No doubt devastated by the loss of his father, Joe dropped out of school and took over the family farm.  His younger brother and mother helped where they could, but Joe took the responsibility.  Of course to make matters worse, this is all happening in the 1930’s, when the US Economy is at one of its lowest points, farming practices across the nation have led to over-worked and malnourished soil, and terrible dust storms make farming almost impossible!  But Joe does it!  He makes it through!  There is no award or special recognition for this part of Joe Foss’ life, but I think perhaps this is the most heroic part of it all, for a young 18 year old to have that kind of integrity is beautiful!

If you are not crying (or at least feeling some flutters on the insides) yet, get ready.  After Joe kept the farm going and kept food on the table long enough for his younger brother to graduate from Washington High School, he told Joe, “Now you go back to school, and I’ll take care of Mom and the farm!” With his brother looking after things and some string pulling by local school administrators Joe went back to school and graduated from Washington High School a full 5 years after dropping out!  He was 23 years old!  In this time Joe had also watched a Marine Corps aerial team led by Capt. Clayton Jerome, preformed above the sky s of Sioux Falls, and he had determined that he wanted to fly! Along with getting his high school diploma, Joe also scrapped together $65 to take flight lessons at Soo Skyways Airfield in Southern Sioux Falls (on the grounds where the West Mall sits today!).

From Sioux Falls to the Pacific!

At the time the quickest path to becoming a pilot was through the Navy… but the Navy only let officers fly planes… officers have college degrees… So, Joe enrolled in classes at USD.  Like most everything in his life Joe Foss did the “College Life” to the fullest… except he did it in fast forward, just over a year after enrolling he had earned a Business Administration Degree… he had also worked with university administrators to develop a Civil Aeronautics Authority office through which he was able to log over 100 flight hours… he had also participated in football, boxing, and track and field, joined a fraternity, worked bussing tables to pay tuition… the whole college experience… in a year!

With a college degree and pilot’s certificate in hand Joe hitchhiked to Minneapolis and joined the Marines in hopes of joining the Naval Aviation Cadet program and becoming a Navy Pilot.  He would eventually be stationed in Pensacola, Florida and graduate the Naval Aviator School, earning a commission as a Second Lieutenant.  However, the victory was short lived, at 26 years old Joe was older than the other pilot’s in his class, and he was considered too old to be a fighter pilot.  He was stationed in San Diego, sent to the Navy Photography School, and assigned to Marine Photographic Squadron 1.

Joe wasn’t satisfied with photo-reconnaissance and while steadily lobbying for a transfer to the fighter squadron he spent all of his extra time practicing in a F4F Wildcat, logging over 150 hours in just a 2 month period! After seeing his tenacity and indeed his natural skill as a pilot, in 1942 Joe Foss was made the executive officer of Marine Fighter Squadron 121… just in time for the US ramp up offensive action in the Pacific Theatre of WWII. 

Joe’s squadron was shipped to Guadalcanal in October of 1942.  Joe would shoot down a Japanese Fighter Plane in his very first combat mission… and narrowly escaped dying himself when his engines were shot up and he landed at full speed with three enemies on his tail!  After that initial bout, and a bout with malaria, Joe’s squadron would become the stars of the Pacific Skies taking down 72 enemy aircraft, becoming known as “Joe’s Flying Circus!” Foss himself would claim 26 enemy planes making him the “Ace-of-Aces” of WWII, taking out more enemy aircraft than any other pilot in the war (actually more enemy aircraft than any other pilot in History!).

In 1943, Foss was sent back to the US, where he met President Franklin Roosevelt and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.  The ceremony was featured in LIFE Magazine with an awkward looking Joe Foss in full military dress gracing the cover!  Foss returned to the Pacific Theatre after a few other stateside duties, and although he took command of another fighter squadron (and even got the opportunity to fly alongside his childhood hero, Charles Lindbergh) he saw no more action, before again contracting malaria and being sent back to California to recover and act as an instructor at the Marine Corps Air Station at Santa Barbara.

Back To Town – SF Awaits

After the war Joe spent two years in Inactive Reserve Duty. In that time he started two businesses back in Sioux Falls, a Packard Car Dealership and Joe Foss Flying Service, a flight school and charter service! But in 1947 the Military came calling again, appointing Foss as the commander of the newly created 175th Fighter Interceptor Squadron of the newly created South Dakota Air National Guard.  Foss actively trained his squadron, leading and training them in person from the cockpit. In his spare time he also joined an air demonstration team, putting on shows for local communities on the weekends!

Foss, now a Colonel, would stay with the South Dakota Air National Guard until the start of the Korean War, when he was called back to active duty with the United States Air Force.  Foss would relinquish his command to become the Director of Operations and Training for the Central Air Defense Command.  In this position, Foss would reach the rank of Brigadier General. He would leave military life for good after the Korean War.

It wouldn’t be known until later, but after the war Joe was a consultant for a movie based on his life and adventures in the war… with the part of Joe Foss being played by none other than his good friend John Wayne!  However, when Joe refused to allow the producers to add a love story element to the script the project fell through!

Governor, Congressman, Senator Joe?

Using his popularity, name recognition, and campaigning from the cockpit of a fighter jet, Joe Foss was elected to 2 consecutive terms as the Governor of South Dakota!  At the ripe old age of 39, Foss became the youngest Governor in SD History!  One memorable moment from his time as Governor involves Foss and a Yankton High School student by the name of Tom Brokaw!  The governor accompanied young Brokaw to New York where the two participated, and won $612 each, on the TV game show Two For The Money!  Brokaw would go on, of course, to spend 5 years as the host of The Today Show and then 22 years as the anchor of the NBC Nightly News.

At this point in his story, Joe Foss is 43 years old… he is just reaching the halfway point of his life!

Foss attempted twice to break into national politics first losing a raise to George McGovern for one of SD’s two seats in the House of Representatives, and then losing to Joseph Bottum, in a short race to fill the Senator’s seat vacated by the death of Senator Francis Case. Not one to linger, Joe spent a short time in management at Raven Industries before becoming the Commissioner of the American Football League!  He would lay the ground work for the now infamous merger with the National Football League.  It would not be an exaggeration to say Joe Foss actively participated in the creation of the media juggernaut that is the NFL we know today!

Pig Skins, Pig Hunts, and Rifles

Foss would call back to his South Dakota roots, and trade his Commissioner’s Suit and Tie for a rod, reel, and rifle, as he transitioned out of the office and into the wild producing and hosting his own show on ABC Television called The American Sportsmen!  Every week Foss would hunt or fish in a different exotic location around the world, and bring all of the excitement… and thrill of the hunt home to living rooms across America! The show would run for 8 seasons from 1967 to 1974.

Whether because of his status as a war hero, one time politician, national notoriety, or his apparent love for hunting… or perhaps all of the above, but the NRA and Joe Foss was a match made in heaven!  After the initial introduction, Joe began getting further involved and rising in the ranks of the organization.  Starting in 1988 he would serve two consecutive terms as the President of the NRA!

Sioux Falls Values – Giving Back

After appearing on the cover of Time Magazine in 1990, Joe Foss led a quiet retirement serving in various positions and volunteering at many different national and local charities including the National Society of Crippled Children and Adults, Easter Seals, Campus Crusade for Christ, and local programs for disadvantaged youths.

In 2001 Foss left retirement to start the Joe Foss Institute, a non-profit organization with a mission to employ military veterans in the teaching and training of American school children in history and civics!  Joe Foss passed away on New Year’s Day after suffering a stroke a few months prior.  He was 87 years old.

Here is a Sioux Falls kid, a Washington High School Graduate, who climbed to the top of every arena he entered, and lived a full-life, pursuing seemingly every avenue as it presented itself!  If I could accomplish just a fraction of what Joe was able to do… I think it would be pretty awesome! Wow!