Their lives together began with a blind date. Colette and Jim Abbott married in 1987. One week ago, on May 4, Colette died suddenly from a complication related to her recently diagnosed cancer. Jim, the president of the University of South Dakota, held his emotions together, going through the university’s graduation ceremony last weekend and a memorial service for Colette Monday.
A lawyer, he served in the state House of Representatives for one term in 1991-92. He ran for the state Senate seat in 1992 against Bernie Hunhoff in a Democratic primary; Hunhoff won by seven votes in a recount. Abbott challenged in court because 19 votes cast by 18 Republicans and one independent weren’t counted. Eventually the South Dakota Supreme Court ruled against Abbott.
In 1994 the Democratic nominee for governor, Jim Beddow, the president of Dakota Wesleyan University at Mitchell, selected Jim Abbott as his running mate. They didn’t win, but their proposal to reduce property taxes by 30 percent prompted Republican nominee Bill Janklow to promise to do the same. Janklow carried through.
In 1996 Jim Abbott ran for the Democratic nomination for South Dakota’s one seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He placed second in a big field. Rick Weiland, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle, won through the use of a photograph. The photo showed Weiland and Daschle together. It helped swing votes Weiland’s way. Weiland later lost to Republican newcomer John Thune.
The retirement of Betty Turner Asher as USD’s president led Janklow to suggest Jim Abbott be USD’s new president. The state Board of Regents hired Jim in 1997. In 2002, he ran for the Democratic nomination for governor, winning a three-way primary. That same June day, former state Sen. Mike Rounds won the Republican nomination in a three-way primary. Abbott said afterward he knew that night he couldn’t win the general election against Rounds, who received the nomination by staying clear of the feud between Attorney General Mark Barnett and former Lt. Gov. Steve Kirby.
Today, Thune and Rounds hold South Dakota’s two seats in the U.S. Senate. Thune defeated Daschle in 2004. (Hunhoff lost to Janklow in 1998.)
Jim returned from his leave of absence after the 2002 campaign and has remained USD’s president since then. Now 67, he is the longest-serving president in South Dakota’s system of public universities. The campus and its programs are stronger than ever. He’s given his all to a place he loves, the place where he earned his degrees and where Colette earned hers. They were USD.