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Last Updated: Friday, October 8, 2004 11:19 PM MDT

Drue Vitter

Sen. Vitter dies
By Denise Ross, Journal Staff Writer

HILL CITY -- Drue Vitter's Cajun drawl will reverberate through the halls of South Dakota government and Black Hills tourism no more.

The 62-year-old state senator and former Hill City mayor died Friday.

News of his death spread quickly and was greeted with a common refrain: "He will be missed."

Rapid City Mayor Jim Shaw delivered the news to the luncheon crowd at the South Dakota Municipal League's annual meeting in Rapid City.

"I honor him and celebrate his life and contribution to his community," Shaw said.

Peter Stack, another former Hill City mayor, captured Vitter's spirit with a less genteel description.

"He's like a coon-dog. Once he gets something up a tree, he won't let it go," Stack said, repeating the description offered by some of Vitter's friends visiting from Louisiana a few years ago.

Vitter and his wife, Patsy, moved to Hill City from New Orleans 16 years ago, and the couple ran businesses together. When Patsy died of a brain aneurysm in June, the two owned and operated Patsy Ray's clothing boutique and Lather and Lace in Hill City.

Gov. Mike Rounds served as a state senator alongside Vitter for four years and said the two Republicans became friends.

"I enjoyed many conversations with Drue. I've lost a very close friend," Rounds said. "The loss of Sen. Drue Vitter is a real blow to South Dakota. He was always looking for a way to make things better. The people of this state have truly lost a champion for community development."

Rounds said he could tell when an issue came up that Vitter was passionate about.

"His head would come up, and his eyes would light up," Rounds said. "He always had an idea in mind. And it wasn't for Drue. It was for his community."

Vitter was elected to the state Senate in 1996 and was finishing his final year in office. He was barred by term limits from seeking re-election.

Vitter's legacy includes a vibrant Hill City Main Street full of shops that draw tourists and South Dakota's new $1 million value-added tourism subfund within the Revolving Economic Development and Initiative loan fund. Vitter sponsored the bill to create the tourism fund, which can be used to pay for feasibility studies and marketing programs.

"He would be one of the top tourism legislators. He worked hard on it. Get him going, and he's hard to slow down," said Stan Anderson, a member of the state tourism board that for the past year has screened applications for grants and loans from the tourism sub-fund. "He was good for tourism, bottom line. If we had everybody like him, we wouldn't have any trouble passing tourism legislation."

Vitter's reputation as a tireless advocate for South Dakota tourism has its beginnings in his 1992 election as Hill City mayor. The state was planning to rebuild U.S. Highway 385 so that it bypassed Main Street, a move that local leaders feared would relegate the town to has-been status, Stack, who succeeded Vitter as Hill City mayor, said.

"You wouldn't believe the absolute fear of the town when that road project was going on. 'The road's going to bypass us? Would the downtown just fall away?'" Stack said. "He took a town known to be a bump in the road - a dirt-dusty town - and turned it into probably one of most talked-about communities in this part of the country."

Stack, Rounds and former Rapid City Mayor Ed McLaughlin each recalled Vitter's work during that highway project that started in 1995.

McLaughlin said he persuaded Vitter to look for the opportunities in the highway project instead of fighting it.

"I told him, 'Work to make it an opportunity for your community,'" McLaughlin said.

Vitter did exactly that, according to Stack.

"He had the state highway department treed. He was on them constantly," Stack said. "He talked them into things none of us ever dreamed would happen. He got four side streets done. He got a (federal highway) grant for those old-fashioned lights downtown. He got them to put sidewalks where we had never had sidewalks before. That was like instant cleanup, an instant boost to our city."

Rounds said that instead of the highway bypass hurting Hill City, Vitter led the way in finding ways to make it benefit the central Black Hills town.

"He made that Main Street into a fabulous spot. He was the driving force in helping make Hill City the vibrant community it is today," Rounds said.

Vitter reached across the aisle to get work done, Jim Burg, a Democrat public utilities commissioner, said.

"He made sure that he knew who you were if you were somebody else in government. He was interested in new ideas. He didn't care where they came from," Burg said.

Sioux Falls Mayor Dave Munson served with Vitter in the state Senate, and the two talked at last weekend's Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup.

"We had a great talk. He looked healthy. He was disappointed in Louisiana State University football," Munson said. "He had such a zest for living. He had strong opinions, but once it was over, he could move on. He was always a gentleman."

Funeral arrangements are pending with Behrens-Wilson Funeral Home of Rapid City.

Contact Denise Ross at 394-8438 or denise.ross@rapidcityjournal.com



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