Historical Vignette 108 - Tom Brokaw's Corps Connection

In his autobiography, A Long Way From Home: Growing Up in the American Heartland, former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw details his early life growing up in South Dakota. His story includes several links to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Brokaw’s father, Anthony O. “Red” Brokaw, first took a Corps job at Igloo, an Army Ordnance Depot in southwestern South Dakota managed by the Corps. When the Corps began construction of Fort Randall Dam on the Missouri in 1946, the Brokaw family moved to Pickstown in search of the opportunities promised by a project designed to be the largest earth-rolled dam in the world.

The Corps hastily built Pickstown adjacent to the project to house thousands of workers and their families; at the peak the population reached 3,500. The town took its name from Corps Major General Lewis A. Pick, Missouri River Division Engineer, co-author of the Pick-Sloan plan for multipurpose development of the Missouri River basin, and later Chief of Engineers. In Brokaw’s words, Pickstown provided a “welcome security: a year-round paycheck, good benefits, low-cost but comfortable housing, and a vibrant community of like-minded families from all across America. Daily life revolved around work, family, school, church, community.”

Pickstown was a model community in its day and a local tourist attraction. It boasted a large bowling alley and recreation center, “the largest movie theater in five counties,” and a school with “the largest maple wood basketball court in the county.” Brokaw’s fond memories of life at Pickstown include playing shortstop on the town baseball team, friendships with the Yankton Sioux tribe, and explorations for rocks and minerals as part of a club organized by Corps geologists.

Although he moved to nearby and much larger Yankton when he was 15 years old, Tom held his years growing up in the Corps town at Fort Randall in high regard. Years later when he would meet up with friends from his youth in Pickstown, they would agree “that was the best place we ever lived.”

Following high school graduation in 1958, Brokaw worked as a summer tour guide at Gavins Point Dam, another of the five Pick-Sloan projects near Yankton. He described the experience as a “great summer—good hours and no heavy lifting.” In 1962 he left South Dakota and headed east to begin an outstanding career in broadcast journalism. But Tom Brokaw never forgot his formative years in the Great Plains.

Tom Brokaw (left) and Gavins Point Area Engineer Robert E. Roper (right) greet the
20,000th visitor to the Gavins Point powerhouse on August 27, 1958.

Courtesy of USACE Omaha District.

Sources: Tom Brokaw, A Long Way From Home (2002) and “57375: Tom Brokaw Steals Home,” National Geographic magazine, April 2002.

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July 2007