Editor’s note: This is the third in a four-part series talking with former Rapid City Daily Journal employees and what they remember from their perspective covering the 1972 flood.
Some memories stay with you forever.
That’s especially true for Marcia Mitchell, formerly Marcia Donnan, who worked as the Women’s Editor for the Rapid City Journal and was one of only two women in the newsroom. Sally Farrar being the other.
In the job, Mitchell was responsible for the Sunday women’s section. Mitchell described it as a society section looking at fashion, bridal sections and some material especially interesting to women. While that was her responsibility, that didn’t stop Mitchell from also regularly covering news reporting such as issues affecting the Pine Ridge Reservation or drug use in Rapid City.
On that Thursday, one day before the June 9, 1972 Black Hills flood, Mitchell had met with Salvation Army Major George William Medley and his wife Captain Joy Medley to work on a large enterprise story of the various services the Medleys were hoping to implement in Rapid City.
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“That Friday morning, Bill and his wife started to attempt to go up to the Salvation Army camp, which I believe was about a dozen miles west of the city on (Highway) 44. And the National Guard turned them around, and they went back to town,” Mitchell said. “Typical of them, they decided that they really needed to get back to town and help people.”
When the Medleys returned to town they opened up the Salvation Army Chapel along Rapid Creek and before long, the water started to fill inside the chapel to the point where Joy Medley took some older women who sought refuge inside and left for higher ground.
“Typical of Bill, he went and jumped into the truck and went into town, to try to see what he could do to help,” Mitchell said. “And that very night, he was in the process of rescuing some people. In fact, the story is that he was holding a baby in his arms, and had put people in a truck, I think was a truck or a van. And then the water hit them. And he had saved people, but he was lost.”
Mitchell said it left her with a disturbing feeling having just been with him making plans about how this story and all the plans he had to help the people of Rapid City.
“He was a wonderful man. But that’s a memory that is very strong with me because we had spent so much time planning and to see his vision for helping people in that area and then have that vision just shattered,” she said.
While doing a series on foster care, Mitchell said there was one family she had come to know who had lived on State Highway 44 near the fish hatchery.
The family, who lived in a two-story colonial-style home, were forced up to their attic as the water in Spring Creek began to rise.
“In the window in the attic, they looked at the house right next door and the people there had climbed out on the roof of their house,” Mitchell said. “They were watching the people on the roof when the House pulled away from its foundation and was swept away. This big house — turned on its side on Spring Creek and was gone.
“Just to speak with people who had seen something like that was an incredible experience. It’s an experience for those people to see it and then to tell it, and then to live with it. It’s not easy. That was one of the things that remains with me is being with those people.”
The Monday following Friday night’s devastation, Mitchell said she took over as an obituary writer for a brief period, because “we had so many obits to do on Monday after the flood.”
While working, a woman friend of Mitchell’s came into the Journal’s office, stood in front of her desk, and handed Mitchell a handwritten page.
It was an obituary for the friend’s husband and daughter.
“She told me that she and her husband and their two children, a boy and a girl, were listening to the radio and waiting, they were thinking maybe we don’t have to evacuate. We’ll wait and see if there’s an evacuation order. And suddenly, there was an evacuation order,” Mitchell said “They had their car packed and the car was in the driveway and ready to go. They went out to get in the car and a wall of water hits them.
“She grabbed her daughter’s hands and held tightly, but she couldn’t hold the child against the weight of the water, the force of the water, and the child was washed away.”
As Mitchell’s friend talked about the loss of her husband and daughter, she also said they had not yet found her son.
“She said, ‘Marcia, I will have to bring you his obituary because I can’t do it yet. They haven’t found my boy.’ And as it turned out, they found her boy in a tree. He was alive. But it was stories like that,” Mitchell said. “They were just one after the other.”
On June 26, 1972, the Journal put together its first comprehensive special edition featuring a cumulative report on its flood coverage the prior two weeks.
For Mitchell, it was an honor for her to lead the front page of that edition with a column with the headline “‘It’s rather like war… isn’t it?’”
As Mitchell described it in her column, “It seems safe to say that no person in the city or in the surrounding communities of the Black Hills was untouched by the disaster.”
While later commending the acts of heroism of the community, “From the first hours of the disaster, volunteer efforts have been of incredible magnitude,” Mitchell detailed.
As noted by the Journal’s City Editor Jack Weaver at the time, in a special story on how to put out a newspaper following a disaster, “We’re experts at the Rapid City Journal — we did it once, none of us cares to become any more an expert.”
An Editor’s Note included throughout that edition noted that “There were too many heart-touching stories in Rapid City during the flood and the Journal couldn’t begin to round up or report all of them.”
Teamwork and sharing news
As the Journal shared stories reported on from various news outlets who had traveled to Rapid City to cover the devastation, including the Associated Press, the Minneapolis Star and Minneapolis Tribune, and the Denver Post, among others.
Mitchell said she had never seen the newsroom work so hard or as one big team to get the news out during that time.
Everybody was so dedicated to getting the paper out. Working long extra hours, without any regard for the clock, she said.
Reporters, photographers and editors were out in the streets standing in water talking to people to hear how they had been impacted by the storm.
Reporters didn’t have the traditional competitiveness that might happen fighting over a front page story or sticking to their specific reporting beats. Everybody did what they could to help.
“Nobody was criticizing, nobody was pushing, it was just everybody going full bore. And it was remarkable to see the effort put into getting a newspaper out,” Mitchell said. “But I thought it was so amusing that they were scooping water out of the toilets to use for (processing) film.”
That paper’s edition had reached up to 229 victims identified.
While the final tally of victims would reach 238, Mitchell said that the daily reports the Journal kept made her realize how difficult it must have been for families to learn their loved ones had died from the news.
“The thing that was so unreal was it came out every day, there’d be more and more names on that list. It was not possible for the authorities to notify next of kin that this loved one had been found dead. It was not possible to get that information out personally,” she said.
“So people were learning that their loved one was lost by hearing the name read over the radio or seeing it printed in the newspaper,” Mitchell said. “It reminded me so much of those desperate people in the Civil War waiting for news.”
In 1973, Mitchell was named the National Press Woman of the Year during a ceremony held in Michigan.
Following her time with the Journal, Mitchell would join Gov. Richard Kneip’s staff as the Secretary of Labor. She was the first female member of the South Dakota Governor’s Cabinet and the only woman in the country in the role of Secretary of Labor.
Now, after much success in the broadcasting and film arts, Mitchell is a successful non-fiction writer who likes to split her time in the Black Hills and the British West Indian island of Montserrat.