Chosen as the South Dakota State University Family of the Year for 2019 is the Harold and Phyllis Somsen Family, originally of Castlewood.
The family will be honored at halftime of the South Dakota State-Western Illinois women’s basketball game March 2 as well as at a luncheon before the game. The award is presented by Staters for State, the student chapter of the South Dakota State Alumni Association.
Harold and Phyllis Somsen were raised in the Depression and Dirty ’30s and struggled to make a living on their farm 5 miles from Castlewood, about 40 miles north of Brookings, according to Lowell Somsen, the eldest of seven children. Lowell started the State family tradition when he enrolled in 1969. “I decided I wasn’t going to milk cows anymore.” He earned a bachelor’s degree in health, physical education and recreation as well as biology in 1973. By then brother Dan was already playing football for the Jackrabbits.
In all, six of the seven Somsen children enrolled at State. One of their spouses also is an SDSU graduate as are nine grandchildren and three of the grandchildren’s spouses, bringing the total to 19. Graduation years range from 1973 to 2017.
While honors go to the Somsens, Lowell said it is South Dakota State that really should be in the spotlight. “We want to thank South Dakota State for allowing a group of kids to make a decent living from the education we received. Now, we’re trying to pay that back.”
A State family
• Lowell, of Pierre, has been part owner of FischerRounds Associates insurance agency since 1986 and is in the process of selling his stock and phasing into retirement.
• Dan, of Yankton and a 1976 pharmacy graduate, has just retired after being co-owner of Yankton Rexall Drug for 24 years. He also spent 16 years in hospital pharmacy.
• Laura Bass, of Barre, Vermont, spent a year at State. She married Brad, a Land ’O Lakes executive.
• Larry, a twin to Laura, took over the family farm and dairy operation after the untimely death of their father in 1975.
• Leon, of Yankton and a 1982 ag economics/business graduate, is a federal crop specialist and owner of the Somsen Crop Insurance Agency in Yankton.
• Jerry, of Webster and 1990 mathematics graduate, is a director in the Avera insurance division of DakotaCare. He also holds a 1994 master’s degree in mathematics.
• Russell, of Pierre and a 1991 park management graduate, is an administrator with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineering.
The degrees of grandchildren have been as wide ranging—from economics to engineering. Although Laura and Brad Bass did not graduate from SDSU, their children did: Eric (’03 biology/education, ’08 master’s of educational administration), Nathan (’03 electrical engineering), Derek (’08 electrical engineering) and Darci Reinesch (’08 nursing).
Jerry’s daughter, Brittany (’15 interdisciplinary studies) and Lowell’s son Cody (’17 Wildlife & Fisheries) completes the grandchildren graduates.
Separate generations, similar ties
There are some commonalities between the generations. Lowell and Dan both played sports—Lowell two years in baseball and Dan five years in football. Dan’s son, Layne, was a standout pitcher and now is in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.
Lowell and Jerry were both commissioned as second lieutenants through the U.S. Army ROTC program. Stacey Wadsley, Lowell’s daughter, was commissioned through the U.S. Air Force ROTC program and now is a navigator on RC-135 reconnaissance planes at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska.
Lowell said each family member can say they’ve made friends for life from their time at State. “There is a camaraderie at State. Everybody is treated the same, everybody mixes together. It’s not clickish. State had a good blending of walks of life.”
Dan added, “Most of the friends I have now came through the college years.” He also notes he appreciates the 1970s football reunions the last two years. “You get to talk to people you haven’t talked to, in some cases, 40-plus years. Because of college, there are a number of people across the state, across the nation, that if you ever get close to them, you try to look them up.”
Lowell has a similar experience when he attends ROTC reunions.
For Wadsley and her sister, Suzanne Moe ’04, many of those friendships came through playing in The Pride of the Dakotas Marching Band.
Drawn back by athletics
After graduation, Lowell served a term on the SDSU Alumni Association Board and Dan was on the Pharmacy Advisory Council. Several family members have made contributions to the athletic department.
Athletic events are the ticket for bringing the Somsens back to State. Hobo Day is a long tradition for many in the family and a more recent tradition has been The Summit League basketball tournament in Sioux Falls. Of course, this year there also will be the regular-season finales in Brookings March 2. That could draw up to 40 Somsens from ages 2 to 67.
“South Dakota State is a good place to get an education. It keeps proving itself year in, year out with the graduates that come out of there,” Dan said.
And the Alumni Association notes that would include 19 Somsens.