In a news release issued Tuesday, South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard announced the death of Steven Zinter, an associate justice on the South Dakota Supreme Court.
The statement from Daugaard read in part: “Linda and I were shocked to hear this news. Justice Zinter was a towering figure in South Dakota law and a consummate public servant. He overcame his disability to reach the pinnacle of his profession and he was a role model and inspiration to many.”
I did not know Justice Zinter. I did interview him once. As a journalist, that interview left me with a deep appreciation for Zinter and the state of South Dakota.
Even as a newspaper reporter for a while in Pierre, South Dakota’s state capital, I didn’t have much reason to brush up against the Supreme Court. State level coverage was mostly left to a state capital news service, to which my paper subscribed. And my beat was geographically focused on the other side of the Missouri River from the capital, in the city of Fort Pierre.
But the Fort Pierre connection gave me an excuse to talk to Zinter—he was a Fort Pierre resident. The city of Fort Pierre celebrated its bicentennial in 2017. In recognition of the 200-year celebration, the city of Fort Pierre was given the honor of decorating the Capitol Christmas tree. A highlighted ornament on the tree was a stuffed buffalo head (of course). It turned out that “Buffy,” the buffalo head, was borrowed from Justice Zinter’s office, just down the hall from the tree in the Capitol Rotunda.
The backstory of Justice Zinter’s buffalo head proved to be interesting enough that I wrote a longish piece about it for the Capital Journal: “Buffy: A buffalo now herd on high for Christmas at the Capitol” The buffalo was shot years ago by Ron Schreiner, whose wife, Gloria Hanson, is the mayor of Fort Pierre.
But the head wound up in Zinter’s office. I needed to talk to Zinter for the story, so I looked him up in the phone book. His wife, Sandy, answered. I’d met her before, because she was on the committee responsible for decorating the tree. She told me Zinter was at his office. She’d pass along my message and what I wanted to talk about.
A half hour later, Justice Zinter called me back. And with grace and good humor, he answered all my questions about Buffy, the buffalo head.
Maybe it’s not so unusual…for South Dakota. It’s a small state—less than a million residents—and in my experience, state government officials are generally pretty accessible to journalists. If you find a dataset on a government website, it’s not hard inside of five minutes to be talking to the analyst who’s in charge of that data.
A data analyst, sure. But Steven Zinter was the sort of man who, even as a South Dakota Supreme Court Justice, was generous enough with his time to return a call from a local newspaper reporter working on a dumb little story about a stuffed buffalo head.
My thoughts are with his family today.
From the Capital Journal piece, here’s the part of the story Zinter helped provide:
It had been naive, Schreiner allowed, to think that a single buffalo would feed 1,000 people. So the chefs prepared several different kinds of hors d’oeuvres. “He was really, really tasty,” Schreiner said.
Although Mollison was Buffy’s first owner, he’s not the current one. That honor belongs to Mollison’s friend, Steven Zinter, who serves as an associate justice on South Dakota’s Supreme Court.
Zinter told the Capital Journal that in the general timeframe of his appointment to the Supreme Court, Mollison gave him Buffy. When Mollison retired from the concrete company, he took Buffy with him, but his wife didn’t want Buffy hung on a wall of their house, Mollison said. So Buffy stayed in the basement for a couple of years.
He and Mollison would tease each other, Zinter said, as hunters will do, about their spouses not allowing them to hang big game mounts on the walls. And after he was appointed to the court, it was apparent that his new office had a suitable spot for Buffy—above the huge fireplace.
Zinter described how fireplaces in the offices of justices were part of the original Capitol construction, ornate wood and marble structures—but the chimneys have now been capped off.
Visitors who come into the office immediately notice Buffy, Zinter said, and typically ask to have a photograph taken of themselves with the buffalo.
Why did Buffy make a short trip from Zinter’s office to the Capitol Christmas tree? It’s a Fort Pierre connection.
Two centuries ago, just across the Missouri River from where the state Capitol now sits, Fort Pierre was settled. Fort Pierre’s bicentennial celebration has lasted this whole year, highlighted by a weekend of events in September.
Fort Pierre’s bicentennial earned it the privilege of decorating the tallest tree at the Capitol, according to Dawn Hill, co-chair of Christmas at the Capitol.
Buffaloes are tightly connected to Fort Pierre historically – the city is just south of where Scotty Philip, remembered as the “Man who saved the Buffalo,” set up a pasture for a small herd of the last remaining bison in 1901. So it’s not surprising that Fort Pierre would want to infuse its decorations with a buffalo theme.
Schreiner, who took Buffy down, is married to Fort Pierre’s mayor, Gloria Hanson – but that’s not the direct connection that put Buffy on the tree. The direct relationship was through Zinter.
Zinter is also a Fort Pierre resident. And he’s married to Sandy Zinter, a retired state human resources commissioner who’s serving on the Fort Pierre committee tasked with decorating the tree.
In the Capitol Rotunda a spotlight is aimed upward at the stuffed buffalo head from under its chin. And Buffy is clearly basking in the glow.