EDITOR’S NOTE: "Where Are They Now?" is a monthly series profiling individuals who once lived in the Yankton area. If you have any suggestions for subjects to profile, please contact us at 605-665-7811 or email us at email@example.com.
After high school, Kevin Schieffer was set to open a gas station in Yankton, but those plans blew up.
"I graduated from Crofton High School, and I planned to open my own business. My brother, Dennis, had signed a note for me to buy the gas station, and I was all ready to go," Scheiffer said. "About two weeks before the deal was completed, there was an explosion and the gas station blew up. It was located on Fourth Street, where the Casey’s (convenience store) sits today."
Scheiffer found himself making a change of plans — something he would do often in his life.
The twists and turns led him to law school in Washington, D.C., where he landed a job with then-U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler and ascended from the mailroom to serving as Pressler’s chief of staff.
Schieffer later served as U.S. Attorney for South Dakota, worked in his own private law practice and eventually became president and CEO of the Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern (DM&E) railroad. After the 2008 sale of the railroad, he retired and now enjoys the freedom to pursue other interests and to enjoy winters in warmer climates.
"Right now, I’m in Mexico," he said during a Press & Dakotan phone interview. "We have a home here and come down for part of the year. We spend the balance of the year in Sioux Falls."
Schieffer currently serves on the South Dakota Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s public colleges and universities.
It’s a fitting role for a man who didn’t plan to attend college but then developed a passion for higher education and the lifetime opportunities it has afforded him.
Schieffer originally planned to attend a Nebraska trade school. Instead, he attended the School of Mines in Rapid City, mistakenly thinking its mechanical engineering program offered training as an auto mechanic.
"There wasn’t a carburetor on the whole campus," he said, laughing at the "uh-oh" moment. "I was like a fish out of water. But I enjoyed it and was glad that I had done it. I learned a great deal."
Schieffer later transferred to the University of South Dakota in Vermillion and found a passion for learning.
"I loved the university," he said. "I liked the intellectual experience."
HEADING TO D.C.
After graduating from USD, Schieffer pursued a law degree. He received a scholarship to Georgetown University and an unpaid internship in Washington, D.C.
"When I got out to Washington, I needed to get a paying job. I was living in my car at the time," he said. "I found a job as a mechanic at a gas station close to the courthouse where I had this internship. I was happy about it. I thought I had fared pretty well."
University of South Dakota professor William Farber had mentored Schieffer during college and contacted his former student to learn how he was faring in Washington.
"I told him that I was working as a mechanic," Schieffer responded to his mentor.
Farber did not take the news well.
"He said, ‘You’re in Washington D.C.! Go to the White House! Try to get a job somewhere (in government) as a janitor or elevator operator. Find a place where you can learn the ropes. You can always work as a mechanic in Yankton.’"
Schieffer got the message loud and clear.
"(Farber) chewed me out pretty good. I lined up interviews on Capitol Hill and went there with my tail between my legs," he recalled.
Schieffer started his search with Pressler. Schieffer was hired to work in the mailroom but ascended the ladder. He became a Pressler staff member, working on legislative issues, and became chief of staff from 1982-91.
Schieffer flipped his schedule, working days in Congress and attending law school at night.
During that period, Pressler found himself part of a historic moment. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was conducting the Abscam sting in the late 1970s, offering bribes to find political corruption.
Pressler turned down the bribery attempt and became a symbol of a politician who did the right thing.
At first, Schieffer didn’t understand why Pressler would be targeted in the sting but learned the answer during hearings.
"He was targeted because he was one of the least wealthy members of Congress, and they were very certain he would jump at the bribe," Schieffer said. "But he handled himself very well in that situation. I was proud of him and, because (of his refusal of the bribe), I decided to stay on his staff after law school."
After receiving his law degree, Schieffer served from 1982-87 as counsel to Pressler for the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. The experience involved rail policy issues, which would later provide a valuable stepping stone for Schieffer’s work with rail lines.
From 1987-91, Schieffer served as Pressler’s chief of staff. He also taught at Georgetown University Law School as an adjunct professor.
Schieffer then returned home, as then-President George H.W. Bush appointed him as the U.S. attorney for South Dakota from 1991-93.
From 1993 to 1996, Schieffer served as chief legal counsel to Cedar American Rail Holdings Inc. Schieffer retired in 2008 after 12 years a CEO of the Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern Railroad and sale of the rail line.
"Operationally, we were able to do things that had never been done before," he said. "We grew from about 250 employees to more than 1,000, and from 800 miles of track to about 2,500 miles."
Schieffer stayed active in one area of public service when Gov. Dennis Daugaard appointed him to the Board of Regents. Schieffer was appointed in 2013 to fill a vacancy. His current six-year term expires in 2021.
"Gov. Daugaard called to offer me the appointment," Schieffer said. "He knew of my long interest in higher education issues and knew this was something that was of particular interest to me. Higher education can be such an amazing life changer for so many, as it was for me."
Looking back on his life, Schieffer said growing up in the Yankton/Crofton area "shaped me completely."
"My family and home had and continues to have the biggest impact on my life. There were 12 of us kids. We worked hard on the farm and fought and loved a lot and remain very close today," he said.
"I have countless fond memories. My kids’ favorite bedtime stories always come from chores with my siblings on the farm. I loved camping with brothers and friends in the ravines along Lewis and Clark Lake, where we have a cabin today and spend lots of time there still."
He recalled other special moments.
"There are also lots of memories in the trailer house I lived in for many years behind Charlie’s Pizza and what used to be Paul’s Mobil gas station. I still check on it now and then when enjoying pizza at Charlie’s," he said.
"Family and siblings are pretty much mostly still in the Yankton/Crofton area, and we see lots of them. Our kids love going to the lake cabin, so the memories continue."
His future plans mostly involve family — his wife, Laney, and their three children — and travel.
"We stay active in business and public service issues, and I’m sure (we) always will," he said. "But it’s a different kind of pace than back in the day."
What has been the most rewarding part of his life?
"Family, family, family," he said. "I’m so much luckier than I deserve."
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