2017 Inductee: Wollman gave meaning to ‘public service’

Terry Woster: I didn’t know South Dakota had a medical school that didn’t grant degrees until about 1970, when I started covering meetings of the state Board of Regents as a reporter for the Associated Press and its member news organizations.

(The 1970 Legislature is when I first met a Democrat senator from Hitchcock named Harvey Wollman. More on that a bit later.)

I knew vaguely that the state had a medical program. It was on the university campus down in Vermillion. Having never had much interest in becoming a doctor, and having been a student at South Dakota State, I had no real reason to be familiar with the med school. Until, as I said, I began reporting on the regents and the state-supported colleges and universities under the board’s control.

That’s when I learned the program provided just two years of medical education. To finish the third and fourth years and receive degrees, medical students had to transfer to a university in another state where a four-year program operated.

As I read and questioned, I learned that until the late 1960s or so, it hadn’t been too difficult for South Dakota medical students from the Vermillion campus to find slots in four-year programs around the country and to slide from the end of their second year of learning into the third and fourth years. But just about the time I started paying attention to the workings of South Dakota’s two-year program, the students finishing their second year started having greater and greater difficulty finding slots in medical schools in other states. Well, now. Two years of medical education certainly is nothing to sneeze at. A doctor, though, it doesn’t make.

The problem grew, and it began to be mentioned more and more often in news stories and among legislators. Harvey Wollman was one of the legislators who rather quickly saw the need to solve the problem.

Wollman, a graduate of the Doland High School that also produced Hubert Humphrey, was in the second year of his first term in the state Senate when we met. He was then and remains to this day, a plainspoken, sincere and humble man, a farmer who believed that “public” and “service” were equally important words.” He was also a downright decent guy, one of those folks who took the Golden Rule as it is written, never looking for an easier meaning to the words.

Wollman became a leader in the push for a four-year, degree-granting medical school in South Dakota. Influential with then-Gov. Richard Kneip (he served as Kneip’s lieutenant governor from 1975 until he became governor in the summer of 1978 when his boss resigned to become ambassador to Singapore), Wollman was instrumental in getting the executive branch behind the initiative. The idea was a “school without walls,” meaning the third- and fourth-year med students would finish their degrees largely in existing facilities, and practicing doctors would supplement the formal medical school staff as faculty.

The idea worked. It hasn’t been without controversy, growing pains, change and, well, walls. But a host of new doctors have come out of college and into the profession because of the expanded program in Vermillion. I’m not sure it would have happened without Wollman, who would be embarrassed to be singled out and who would be quick to rattle off names of others involved in the initiative. It certainly wouldn’t have happened as soon as it did, of that I am sure.

Wollman is an Army veteran, a former teacher, a farmer and a supporting figure in the creation of the state Investment Council and Housing Development Authority, among other programs from the 1970s that continue today. He helped shepherd into law Kneip’s executive order reorganizing the state government’s executive branch.

During the short time he was governor, one thing I recall was the time he and his family visited River Park, an alcohol treatment program in Pierre, to sing Christmas carols for the residents. That’s about the coolest thing I’ve seen a governor do in my state.

The South Dakota Hall of Fame just named him as one of its inductees in the Class of 2017. He is deserving.

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