A Grieving Son’s Open Letter to Jet-Setting South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem
“I regret to inform you that you have lost yet another vote for President in 2024.”
On the icy evening of Nov. 10, Robert Sliper was rolled on a stretcher from an ambulance to a gleaming black and yellow Pilatus PC-12 single-engine turboprop Life Flight plane at Black Hills Airport in Spearfish, South Dakota.
Sliper was an 84-year-old proud South Dakotan and an admirer of Gov. Kristi Noem, who had declared she had the pandemic well in hand. She had been taking very different flights of her own to campaign in other states for President Trump and boost her own political fortunes, maybe to make a presidential run herself in 2024. She had repeatedly said that she was focused not on a record spike in new COVID-19 cases, but on hospital capacity. Her top health official said on Nov. 10 that 37 percent of South Dakota’s regular hospital beds and 32 percent of its ICU beds remained available.
Sliper was one of those new COVID-19 cases, and the practical reality was for him that hospitals in his home state were in fact so short-staffed that not a single one could take him. He was instead loaded on this specially equipped plane, which took off at 5:34 p.m. for a one hour and four minute flight to Greeley-Weld County Airport in Colorado.
Another ambulance took him to Greeley Hospital, where he fought for his life two states and 325 miles from home. The end seemed near at the close of the second day and his son, Mike Sliper, kept a vigil by the telephone through the night. The son passed the time by writing a letter that he finished after the dreaded call about his father came on the morning of Nov. 13.
The younger Sliper—who describes himself as an independent who has voted for both parties and a “Jesus” Christian who believes “all humans have a soul worth protecting and fighting for”—did not plan on actually sending the letter, and would only later decide to post it to his Facebook page.
“Dear Kristi Noem,
“I am sorry if this is wordy, confusing, or disjointed. I have been up all night waiting for a phone call from Colorado that finally came. I regret to inform you that you have lost yet another vote for President in 2024. Although Dad was a big fan of yours, he will not be able to purchase one of your t-shirts nor be able to follow you on the “Me before We” (or however you say it) app that you have been touting.”
A Noem for Governor website was indeed selling “Less COVID More Hunting” t-shirts for $35. And she had been touting a new Care19 app to assist in anonymous contact tracing.
“It’s too bad too because he was a big fan,” Mike Sliper continued in the letter. “Since you won’t get to take a picture with your arm around him, here’s a VERY little bit about my Dad. He was born and raised in South Dakota. His dream was to fly planes in the military. It broke his heart when he found out he couldn’t fly because his entrance physical said he would need glasses in three years. (Turns out they were right.) He did join the Navy and brought home a lot of great stories from all over the world. What a storyteller.
“He ultimately decided to return to his beloved SD and go to the School of Mines. He even learned how to fly a plane while attending college. After graduating, he bought the house he grew up in that his dad built in Lead. He still lived in it until just a few days ago. He was an engineer and surveyor at Homestake Gold Mine like his father. Throughout his life he served his church, his community and even his State. He often spoke with great reverence about the leadership he admired in the military, the business world, and the State.
“So, what’s my point in telling you all of this about someone you’ve never met? Well, I’m one of those that believe you didn’t have to lose his vote quite yet. He believed in you. He listened to you. He followed your lead. Some of my family, including myself, moved to Colorado at some point then returned to South Dakota to settle down. I tell you this because my dad too went to CO before returning home. Except he went on a Life Flight plane due to Covid.”
He made sure to say he did not blame the hospitals and added that the state Department of Health’s vacancy numbers ore are negligently misleading.”
“While I admire your tenacity in recruiting businesses and constituents to come to SD, I think it is abhorrent that you are doing it on the backs of South Dakotans dying from Covid. Selling t-shirts? Really?
As a lifelong South Dakotan, Mike Sliper had observed something about Noem’s fanbase online.
“It is also notable that most of your supporters on social media are from out of state. What I would like to tell those out of staters is that I used to be very proud of being a South Dakotan. Now, not so much.”
He proceeded to further prove himself to be South Dakota at its best.
“I know what you are thinking. You’re afraid I’m going to follow in your footsteps and make some big announcement about how I’m getting into politics because my Dad died, and I saw a great injustice, and I couldn’t just sit by and blah, blah, something about I pay too much in taxes blah, blah. Well don’t worry, I’m not going to. I have fought too many battles in business and life and frankly, I am getting a little run down. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone else will run though. The number of kids losing their dads these days is growing. And if you think this is about politics, you have once again missed the point. This is about too many goodbyes over the phone from children, grandchildren, and spouses and a concern that the longer this drags out, more of my friends will lose their businesses.”
He considered a word that Noem has used to justify her continued resistance to imposing a mask mandate even though mandates have been proven to save lives.
“I believe in Freedom for all, but I understand that to remain civilized we do need some rules. I feel that Freedom does not come without some sacrifice. I also do not believe we need a total shutdown, although if that is what it takes, I will abide. I believe that if we all make a little sacrifice, so many South Dakotans won’t have to make the ultimate sacrifice. I also believe that sometimes Leadership means telling those you are responsible for that we have to change our lives a little for the short term to preserve the lives and livelihoods of friends and family for the long term. And I know it is possible to reduce our risk.”
He included a picture of his father being rolled from the ambulance to the gleaming black and yellow Life Flight.
“The attached photo is of my Dad boarding for his last trip in a really cool and fast looking plane. I’ll just bet that ol’ Navy boy that loved to fly thought that was pretty neat. Alas, I won’t get to ask him for a while.”
Mike Sliper did not immediately post the letter to his Facebook page or send it to Noem; he said he did not think it would affect her. But that changed after he watched a televised Noem press conference on Nov. 18. She spoke yet again of trusting the people of South Dakota to take personal responsibility, and she reiterated her position on masks.
“I’ve consistently said that people who want to wear a mask should, and people who don’t should not be shamed because they choose not to,” she said.
State Secretary of Health Kim Malsam-Rysdon was on hand to report that 33 percent of the state’s hospital beds were available. Noem cited this as proof she had things under control.
“We are going to continue to focus on hospital capacity and our ability to take care of folks that should need health care if they were to get sick,” she said.
Mike Sliper’s personal sense of social responsibility prompted him to post what now became an open letter to Noem. He made sure to attach the photo of his father being loaded onto a sleek and jazzy plane such as young Robert Sliper dreamt of flying.
When contacted by The Daily Beast this week, Mike Sliper did not want to comment further on Noem. He only wanted it known that he did not fault the state’s hospitals or front-line workers for his father’s death.
“I have many friends all over the state that are healthcare workers and I know how hard they are working and how much many of them are hurting. I believe in my heart they are doing their best and I know they wish they could have taken care of dad,” he said.
On the day that Robert Sliper died, South Dakota had reported 568 deaths since the start of the pandemic. In the weeks since, that number has nearly doubled to some 1,100—in a state of fewer than 1 million.
The mounting death toll has not kept Noem home and focused on the crisis.
On Wednesday, Dec. 2, Noem was in Texas, addressing a benefit gala for veterans. On Saturday, she starred in the opening ceremonies at a Texas rodeo, riding a horse while carrying a American flag. She was in Georgia the next day, the darling of the anti-lockdown, anti-science crowd now doing post-debate spin for Sen. Kelly Loeffler.
Noem then returned to South Dakota, which this week has the fourth highest number of cases per capita in the country and two counties on the top 10 list of hot spots. But the numbers that matter most to her denote dollars, and she was back to focus on the budget.
“In the coming weeks, governors across the country will give speeches outlining their budget proposals,” she tweeted on Monday. “Following months of economic lockdowns, many of my peers are likely not looking forward to these addresses. In South Dakota, we forged a different path.”
Robert Sliper will be buried with full military honors in a private ceremony at Black Hills National Cemetery.
“We want to bury him in the state that he loved so much but near the end didn’t have room for him in the Inn, so to speak,” his son wrote in the letter to Noem.
The cemetery is less than 4 miles from Sturgis, site of the summer’s mega motorcycle rally involving hundreds of thousands of largely maskless bikers—which Noem endorsed as an exercise in freedom. Medical experts called it madness and rightly predicted that the participants would afterwards spread COVID across South Dakota and much of the rest of the country.
A different path for sure.