Eleanor McGovern, the wife of former Sen. George McGovern, died Thursday morning at the family’s home in Mitchell, S.D., according to a Mitchell funeral home. She was 85.
The McGoverns became part-time residents of Marco Island in December of 2003, residing on Rockhill Court.
Eleanor McGovern had suffered heart problems for five years and underwent bypass surgery last year. She had been under hospice care at the couple’s Montana home, the former senator has said.
Visitation and funeral arrangements are being handled by the Bittner Funeral Chapel in Mitchell.
Michelle Bittner, owner of the chapel, said the funeral service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday at the Methodist Church.
The McGoverns had spent most of their lives in South Dakota.
George McGovern was born in Avon, S.D., in 1922, and lived in nearby Mitchell, having moved there at the age of six. The son of a minister, he graduated from Dakota Wesleyan University.
George married Eleanor Stegeberg, of Woonsocket, S.D., in October of 1943. The two had met during a high school debate in which Eleanor and her twin sister, Ila, defeated McGovern and his partner at Mitchell High School.
As reported by the Sioux City Journal, Eleanor was born Nov. 25, 1921, in Woonsocket and grew up on a farm during the Great Depression. When her mother died, the 12-year-old Eleanor and Ila helped their father raise their younger sister.
Eleanor graduated second in her high school class in 1940 and enrolled at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell. She left school after a year to work as a legal secretary in Mitchell.
George McGovern had first asked Ila for a date only to learn she had a boyfriend. Eleanor was unattached, and after McGovern was drafted for World War II, they were married by his father, a minister, on Oct. 31, 1943.
The McGoverns had five children. One of their four girls, Teresa, died in 1994 at age 45 after battling alcoholism for years. Intoxicated, she had fallen unconscious in a snowdrift in Madison, Wis., and died of hypothermia.
George McGovern served in the U.S. House from South Dakota from 1957-61 and was a U.S. senator from 1963 to 1981. He was the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, losing 49 states to Richard Nixon.
Eleanor McGovern campaigned on her own for her husband across the country and appeared frequently on network television and radio programs on national and international issues.
After that, she addressed civic, academic and women’s groups as an advocate for children, family life and the roles of women. She wrote articles and given interviews on a variety of topics, including alcoholism.
George and Eleanor had lived in Stevensville, Mont.
Eleanor McGovern was a member of the Women’s Democratic Club and had served on the boards of Dakota Wesleyan, the Psychiatric Institute Foundation, Child Study Association, Erickson Institute of Chicago and Odyssey House of New York. She was involved with the Child Development Associates Consortium.
She and her family also established the McGovern Family Foundation in Washington, D.C., to raise money for alcoholism research.
Her memoir, Uphill: A Personal Story, was published in 1973.
Marco real estate agent Charlie Johnson chauffeured the couple around for a couple of weeks before they settled on their waterfront home on Marco.
Johnson said the couple initially eyed a condominium on Hideaway Beach. However, when condo association members told them their 120-pound Newfoundland, Ursa, was too big, they rejected the beachfront high-rise and opted for a house.
Just days after moving into the Marco home, Eleanor McGovern recounted how she broke her leg the previous winter, and when she came home from the hospital, Ursa settled down next to her.
“She was always right there next to me,” she said.
Eleanor’s accident contributed to the McGoverns buying a Marco home. They’d decided it was time to put icy winters behind them.
George McGovern said he first heard about Marco from Jim Space, a friend in Minnesota, who owns a home on nearby Wavecrest Court. Space put McGovern and Johnson in touch.
George McGovern felt Marco would be perfect for writing. He and Eleanor loved the island and the people.
Johnson, a real estate agent with Prudential Florida WCI Realty, has been friends with the McGoverns for about four years.
“She was an extremely nice lady and was the motherly type and treated guests just like family,” Johnson said. “She was a genuine nice, nice woman and anyone would have been proud to know her. This is going to be devastating for George.”
Pat Donovan, a Naples resident, was McGovern’s secretary while he was in Congress.
“Eleanor McGovern was a marvelous and gifted woman,” she said. “She was a supportive mother and wife.”
Both Johnson and Donovan said Eleanor helped the congressman at every step of his career while she managed the family.
“She was his right-hand man,” Johnson said.
He added that Eleanor traveled extensively with George until the last couple of years. Johnson noted that Eleanor’s twin sister that had the same type of heart problem.
Johnson initially took the McGoverns to lunch at Hoot’s, a favorite local hangout on Elkcam Circle, and McGovern liked it so much, he asked if they go could back the next day, Johnson said.
The Hoot’s owners and staff were amazingly friendly, he said. Some of the wait staff are Democrats, Johnson joked.
George McGovern is currently a roving ambassador for the United Nations World Food program.
Eagle Senior Staff Writer Ed Bania and the Associated Press contributed to this report.