The number of delegates to the annual South Dakota American Legion’s Boys State week at Northern State University in Aberdeen next month looks like it will continue a long downward slide, according to figures provided by organizers.
The long decline isn’t connected to, and probably not helped by, the fact that the state director of Boys State, Gene Opbroek, recently was charged with felony forgery in Pierre.
Opbroek, 63, has been active in the American Legion for decades and director of the Boys State for a decade, a volunteer position. He sells insurance.
He pleaded not guilty on April 16 in state circuit court in Pierre to a grand jury’s charge that he fraudulently cashed someone else’s homeowner’s insurance check. His next court appearance is in mid-May.
Sources in court and in the American Legion characterize the case as a dispute with a family member over a check for a “couple of thousand dollars,” the sort of insurance check that might come from a claim for hail damage to a roof.
It is a Class 5 felony that carries a possible maximum sentence of five years in prison. Opbroek, who lives near Rapid City, hired former state Attorney General Marty Jackley to represent him in the case.
Opbroek’s court difficulties have nothing to do with Boys State and won’t affect this year’s program, Travise Flisrand, deputy adjutant for the state American Legion and effectively, the chief operating officer at the Legion's headquarters in Watertown, told the Capital Journal.
Opbroek has been slated, since last May, to leave as Boys State director, to be replaced by the assistant director, Christopher Van Delist, Filsrand said.
The slate of new state volunteer leaders of the Legion’s Boys State program are voted in the day before Boys State program starts, Flisrand said.
The Legion’s Boys State program has not had much experience in how to handle a volunteer leader being charged with a felony, and they are decided on a case-by-case basis, Flisrand said, emphasizing again the alleged crime has no connection to Boys State.
In the bigger picture, to deal with the long-term decrease in delegates, state Legion leaders this year extended the sign-up date by a month, to May 1, for the 2019 Boys State slated for May 27-31 at NSU.
“Last year we had 260 boys attend the event,” said a message recently in the Legion’s online newsletter. “Those number were down from years past and we are hoping with your support we can get as many boys to this year’s event as possible.”
Richard MacDonald is state registrar for Boys State.
“We’re only at 210 right now, so we’re down,” he told the Capital Journal on Thursday. “The guys are out there right now trying,” to increase the registrations in the week before the cut-off date.
It's a far cry from back in the day, when retired NBC news star Tom Brokaw attended as a Yankton High junior — and was elected governor of Boys State in 1958. Or when now-retired U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle was part of it in the mid-1960s in his hometown of Aberdeen and U.S. Sen. John Thune was a delegate in 1978 from Murdo High. Then there were upwards of 600 and more delegates to Boys State each spring on Northern’s campus, where it’s been held since 1940, according to Legion leaders.
In 2009, there were about 430 delegates to Boys State at NSU and in 2013, about 350, the Legion has reported.
MacDonald is in his fourth year of helping lead the organization in South Dakota.
In 2017, about 321 high school junior boys showed up in Aberdeen for the week-long event, he said. Last year, 317 signed up, but only about 260 attended.
“We had no-shows,” MacDonald said. “Kids don’t realize the money is being paid for them and don’t show up.”
Tuition is $200 and most of the cost is for the food service at NSU. Local American Legions sponsor delegates, so it costs the high school juniors nothing but their time.
Fewer and fewer schools are taking part, and fall-off in American Legion membership isn’t helping.
This year, 35 to 40 Boys Staters are signed up from Sioux Falls’ six high schools, MacDonald said. “Last year we had 67 boys from that area.”
This year in Sioux Falls, , Lincoln High has 16 boys signed up, Jefferson, Roosevelt and O’Gorman each have several, Washington High has one and Sioux Falls Christian is sending no one, MacDonald said. “From Pierre, right now we have two. We had five or six last year. It’s been going down. There are three or four from Fort Pierre. There’s just not the support.”
South Dakota’s Boys State is part of a national trend for the unique civic-minded, volunteer-driven nonprofit that is active in every state except Hawaii.
National attendance at Boys State has declined steadily for years, and was down 22.7 percent from 24,987 in 1996 to 19,317 in 2014, according to online sources. In 2015 and 2016,the national numbers increased a total of 1.3 percent to 19,570.
It’s notable that South Dakota hits above its weight class in Boys State numbers, near — until lately — the national average of about 400 delegates, which is about 10 times better than the state’s population would warrant, based just on the averaging out total Boys State participation across the general population.
Aside from the numbers and the bad news about the state director, the Boys State the program is financially solid and still is doing great work, said Flisrand.
Boys State is just one of several youth programs — such as summer baseball — the Legion runs. Gov.Kristi Noem, who as a state legislator and Congresswoman, showed much interest in Boys State and Girls State, will address the delegates at both events.
“It’s something quite refreshing to see these boys and the questions they ask,” Flisrand said. “When they get the governor to come and the chief justice (of the state supreme court) to speak. These kids have insights.”
A cadre of about 60 Legion volunteers contribute a lot to help keep the program running, Flisrand said.
Girls State runs during the same week on the campus of USD in Vermillion and they have been seeing more delegates than Boys State in recent years, Flisrand said.
‘It’s a hands-on government, so kids learn how government runs,” he said. The delegates are organized into virtual cities, then counties and into a state legislature, with ballots, campaigns and lawmaking all part of the process. Election of a governor is the apex of the week.
The delegates are selected from the top students in their high school junior classes, with high test scores, Flisrand said. “And they’ve got common sense. This program has some very positive effects on these boys.”
Boys State began in 1935 in Springfield, Illinois as an American-Legion-backed answer to burgeoning socialist-tinged Young Pioneer Camps that sprang up during the Depression, according to Legion sources. The idea went national through the American Legion in 1937 and Girls State was organized in 1938, run by the American Legion Auxiliary in South Dakota and many other states.
The idea is to give high school students real experience in how American government works, organized from the city, county and state levels.
It can be surprisingly cool, perhaps, to be a Boys State delegate: Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, Michael Jordan and Mark Wahlberg were hip to the school-age statesmanship of Boys State.
As he is wont to do, President-to-be Bill Clinton took it a step further and was one of two Arkansas Boys Staters chosen to be delegates to Boys Nation. It was there, in Washington in 1963, when he had the occasion to be famously photographed with his hero, President John F. Kennedy, in the Rose Garden, and tell him he’d be back.
It’s a program supported by both political parties. Rush Limbaugh and James Carville were delegates.
“When it comes to the education of our children, it is important to keep in mind that these young men and women are the future leaders of our state, both in business and in government,” Sen. Thune wrote in 2008 about the key roles Boys State and Girls State fill in providing civics education. “Democracy can only exist so long as people are capable of governing themselves and it is education — at home, in the classroom and beyond — that assists students in having a greater appreciation and understanding of the principles that our great nation was founded upon.”