When meeting the public, Lt. Gov. Matt Michels has often found himself in very hairy situations.

“The biggest surprise has been the focus on my moustache,” he said, breaking into laughter. “I can’t tell you how many times that people ask me about it.”

Michels, a Yankton resident, found his upper lip even sparked a trivia question.

Anticipating a possible Michels candidacy for the state’s top elected office, one history buff asked: How many South Dakota governors wore moustaches or other facial hair?

“When I was first running for office, a major state politician — who has since passed away — told me there was no way I would get elected with a moustache. He told me that people distrust it,” Michels said. “But I’ve never gone without it (as an adult). My wife has never seen me without a moustache.”

Michels wears his facial hair as a badge of honor. He presented a Press & Dakotan reporter with a fake moustache, encouraging the reporter to wear it during the interview as the newest member of the “Order of the Moustache.”

But a serious Michels later admitted the facial hair helped hide insecurities as a teenager growing up in a broken home in Vermillion.

“Looking back at my awkward, self-absorbed time as a teenager, I was very heavy, and I had mangled teeth because my mom couldn’t afford orthodontics,” he said. “I also had a big mole on my upper lip. It was burned off and left a scar. So when I was a sophomore in high school, I grew a moustache.”

The anecdote reflects Michels’ candor in many ways. He speaks openly about challenges growing up in a single-parent household.

“During a legislative session, one of the legislators wasn’t happy with something I said about child support. He expressed some very strong opinions about it,” Michels said. “I asked him, ‘Do you have any experience with child support? Did you have a friend with experience?’ The legislator replied that his buddy said the system is aproblem.”

At that point, Michels shared his boyhood experience of watchinghis mother struggle to collect child support — a story which he said left the lawmaker wide-eyed.

“I told the legislator that my father left (our family). We were very destitute and almost thrown out of our house,” Michels said. “That was 50 years ago, and it’s still in my marrow.”

While growing up, Michels received moral support from others in dealing with the family’s turmoil. As a result, he broadly defines “family” as those who care for each other even if they aren’t blood relatives.

“Really, when it comes down to it, those people you love and the people who love you make the world valuable and important,” he said.

Finding His Calling After graduating from Vermillion High School, Michels attended the University of South Dakota (USD) in Vermillion. He worked as an orderly and EMT while in college, earning his nursing degree in 1980.

He worked as a nurse while obtaining his bachelors’ degree in health services administration in 1982 and his law degree in 1985, both from USD.

Michels served in the U.S. Navy as a member of the Judge Advocate General (JAG). He was commissioned as a U.S. Naval Officer, serving two temporary assignments and active duty in the Philippines.

At the height of his military career, Michels and his wife, Karen, were living in Florida and facing major life decisions.

“I was offered the position of head lawyer at Bethesda Naval Hospital, but we decided we didn’t want to live in Washington, D.C.” he said. “If you want to make the Navy a career, that’s what you would have to do.”

Michels started sending resumes, seeking to start his law career as a civilian. He received a call from Yankton attorney Don Bierle, who was visiting Orlando the following week and wanted to interview Michelsfor a position with his law firm.

At the same time, Michels was 1 ½ weeks away from sending in the fee to take the Florida bar exam and remain in the state.

Michels and Bierle set up a luncheon meeting, but Bierle didn’t show up or send word he wouldn’t be attending. In an era before cellphones, Michels unsuccessfully tried a number of times to reach Bierle.

At the same time, Michels needed to return to his military base because of an emergency.

“The USS Iowa’s turret had exploded, and there was going to be a national investigation. I knew the commanding officer wanted me to be there,” he said. “I kept calling Karen from a pay phone. I told her, this ‘son of a biscuit’ (Bierle) isn’t showing up. Karen told me that there was a reason for all of this and to just cool down.”

Michels became even more enraged as the afternoon turned to night.

“I was very upset, and I kept calling Don’s room. It was 8 (o’clock) at night, and his daughter-in-law said he was still at EPCOT but shouldbe back after the light show. I hung around until 10 p.m., and I was very furious. I thought he had blown me off.”

As it turned out, Bierle had forgotten the luncheon meeting. Upon returning to his hotel, Bierle met Michels in a bar for what served as the job interview.“

Don made me an offer (to join his law firm), and we became friends,” Michels said. “I think, by God’s intercession, Karen and I were able to come back home (to South Dakota).”

Returning Home

The Michelses moved to Yankton, which has become their home.

Matt quickly credits Karen as the rock in their relationship. They share a common thread in their lives, as they both come from families of divorced parents.

“I’m nothing without (Karen as) my soulmate,” Matt said. “She’s amazing, and we’re getting ready to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary at the end of the year.”

The couple enjoys time together, which became difficult during the legislative sessions when Matt spent two months in Pierre.

Taking advantage of an opportunity, Karen joined the “Yankton Day” bus trip to the Legislature to squeeze in a weekday visit with her husband.

They continue to value time together, Matt said.

“We’ve spent so much time away from each other. Without a doubt— and nothing else even comes close — the activity I enjoy the most is being with my wife. It sounds sappy, and it is,” he said. “We enjoy going for a bike ride or a walk and enjoying Yankton or Vermillion, wherever we happen to be. I’m lucky I married my best friend.”

They have one son and daughter-in-law, Collin and Jill Michels.

Collin has graduated from the USD School of Medicine and is starting his medical residency at Stanford University Medical Center inCalifornia.

Talking Politics

At one point, Matt stepped away from politics because he believed it was more important to remain at home while Collin was growing up.

On the other hand, the Michels family has supported Matt’s desire to run for office and devote his life to public service.

Matt’s political career started in the South Dakota Legislature as a District 18 House member, representing Yankton County. He served from 1999-2006.

While in the Legislature, Matt served two years as Speaker Pro Tempore and four years as Speaker of the House. He was the first person to serve two terms as Speaker since the 1950s.

His political career moved to the next level in 2010 when Republican gubernatorial candidate Dennis Daugaard selected him as running mate. The GOP team won election in 2010 and re-election in 2014. Because of term limits, they cannot run for a third term in 2018.

Michels accepted the No. 2 spot with Daugaard because they shared many values, knew each other well and meshed personally.

Michels recounted Election Day 2010, when the duo started the dayat 4 a.m. in Rapid City with media interviews and “get out the vote”activities. The duo then drove across the state to their watch party and victory celebration in Sioux Falls that evening.

“Dennis and I were sitting at an intersection in downtown RapidCity on the day of the election. He looked at me and said, ‘We’re going to have fun,’” Michels said. “I told him, ‘This is going to be a grind at times, more for you (as governor) than me, but we’re really going to have fun.’”

“And that’s when I gave Dennis the first ‘Order of the Moustache’ award,” Michels added with a laugh.

Michels believes in the power of laughter and the need to “lighten up” at times. He has shown a tremendous sense of humor both in and out of the public spotlight.

When he wasn’t in office, he rode the “Yankton Day” bus to theLegislature in Pierre. He playfully offered two Press & Dakotan reporters an imitation of French cartoon skunk Pepe LePew, which set off a comic exchange that continues to this day.

Last December, Michels was delivering his speech at a South Dakota National Guard formal dinner in Yankton. Noticing a Press & Dakotan photographer, Michels stopped his talk to playfully pose for a shot with the U.S. flag. The impromptu display drew applause from the Bravo Battery soldiers and guests.

“On a daily basis, you have to believe so much funny stuff happens. I love it,” Michels said. “I was flying commercially, and if you pay attention (to those around you), you think, ‘Oh, my gosh! That isabsolutely hilarious!’ and you realize how funny it is.”

In one instance, Michels noticed a man who wouldn’t stop talking on his cell phone even while using the urinal.“

I told Karen, it reminded me to never borrow someone’s phone,” Matt said with a grin.

Handling A Crisis

However, Michels has also experienced intense moments, including natural disasters that ravaged the state. Those disasters included the 2011 Missouri River flood that created millions of dollars of devastation, threatening the state from Pierre/Fort Pierre to Dakota Dunes.

After a briefing from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Daugaard and Michels realized South Dakota was moving into uncharted territory. The state faced an unknown extent to the flooding.

Daugaard assigned Michels to oversee the flood preparations from Yankton to Dakota Dunes. The assignment drew upon the lieutenant governor’s legal, political, medical, military and organizational skills, as well as his regional knowledge and personal connections.

The mission lasted months, with the Missouri River dam releases raging at 160,000 cubic feet per second — one million gallons of water each second — for weeks at a time.

“The number one priority of state government is keeping peoplesafe,” Michels said. “It’s not roads, schools or infrastructure. We ask our citizens, ‘Do you feel safe, and how can we keep you safe?’”

The Missouri River flood mission took a physical toll on Michels, who suffered a back injury. He received treatment but still finds it difficult to travel long distances in the car.

The back injury affected him spiritually as well as physically.

“During the two years post-flood, with my back literally bringing me to my knees, it made me fully comprehend the agony that my father had gone through with his chronic pain,” he said.

“I also realized how it affected my daily life and decision making. No one but Karen knew the turmoil I was in (with my back).”

Michels found himself drawn deeper to God and his religious faith.

“It not only allowed me to work through that agony and get healthy, but it also helps me on a daily basis when I talk to someone going through a family crisis,” he said.

“I may ask if they have ever thought of (a particular) book or devotional. Or it can mean texting things to people on my (governor’s) team who are having a personal crisis.”

Michels said he has never questioned God’s hand playing a role in everyday life. As a nurse and EMT, Michels had found himself confronted with the issue of death and the afterlife.

“One day, I defibrillated an individual and brought him back to life. I thought I was a hero, but (the patient) was upset with me,” Michels said. “He thought he had his religious moment when he had no more pain and he was with his family (who had passed away earlier).”

Showing Compassion

Michels speaks often of the need for compassion and helping those in need.

During one Press & Dakotan interview, he spoke of Native Americans who received substandard care with the Indian Health Service. He showed both anger and sadness when talking about those who died because they couldn’t receive the needed care with IHS or who didn’t survive an ambulance ride to a facility offering such care.

In addition, Michels shows a passion for veterans’ needs. He served as a leader in the construction of the new state veterans’ home in Hot Springs, and he served for a time as the interim Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

He also works closely with the National Guard and Tribal Relations, and he serves on the Board of Trustees of the South Dakota Retirement System.

As lieutenant governor, he serves as the President of the Senate and as a member of the Governor’s Executive Committee.In those roles, he wants to promote a bipartisan spirit in Pierre and across the state.

“I’m going into my 16th legislative session, and it doesn’t lose the allure or ability to teach that we can disagree but not be disagreeable,” he said.

As part of that effort, Michels said he seeks to learn more about a person’s background and what motivates the individual.

“When Dennis (Daugaard) and I interview (a candidate) for a judgeship, I don’t want to jump right to the interview questions and neither does (the governor),” Michels said.

“We want to spend the first half-hour with questions like, ‘Tell us about your life and your family,’ so we can understand what it is that makes (that person) tick.”

What Lies Ahead?

Michels holds goals for the final 18 months of his current term in office.

In July, he becomes chairman of the National Lieutenant Governors Association (NLGA). In the past, the organization has allowed him to work with his counterparts on a bipartisan basis on matters of common interest.

“We’ve also developed relationships and become really good friends,” he added.

As NLGA chairman, he wants to continue work with the “Be The Cure” initiative. The program seeks more ethnic diversity in clinical trials.

He also plans to launch an initiative with the national “Americans for the Arts” organization. The effort would offer various programs, such as art therapy and music, benefiting military members, veterans and their families.

What does life hold for Michels beyond 2018?

He has explored options such as renewing his nursing license or staying active in law. He also enjoys his volunteer work with the Yankton housing commission, Lewis and Clark Behavioral Health and suicide prevention.

In that respect, Michels says he’s excited at the energy he’s seeing with his hometown, including downtown initiatives sponsored by young residents.

“I always enjoy having people come and see our community, to look through their eyes,” he said. “We can ask these people, ‘What do you think?’ and learn from their different perspectives.”

In addition, Michels wants to encourage people — particularly young people — to get involved with politics and to run for office.

“We want to support those people, who try to learn and understand (the process) and not just throw their hands up,” he said. “Sure, these are tumultuous times, but if you study history, we have been through other things.”Michels also wants to spend more time with family, including his mother, who now lives in Yankton.

“I’m taking it one day at a time,” he said. “One of the lines I really enjoy the most and say is, ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell Him you have a plan.’”

Michels wants to make the most of his time and God-given talents.“I have so many things to do in a compressed period of time,” he said. “At the end (of life), I’ve never seen a hearse pulling a U-Haul. We better make our mark in this lifetime (with) how we affect other people.”