Brookings mayor exemplifies a life of service

Courtesy photo: Brig. Gen. Keith Corbett, assistant adjutant general, South Dakota National Guard, met with General Mercour, Suriname, on a visit to that South American nation in 2008.

Town, gown, country. For Brookings Mayor Keith Corbett, life has been defined by a dedication to duty in that trio of arenas. 

Town: He has served on the Brookings City Council and since 2017 has served as mayor. Gown: As student, ROTC cadet, educator, professor of military science, assistant college dean and then college dean at South Dakota State University. Country: A 35-year military career that culminated in promotion to brigadier general and assignment as the assistant adjutant general, South Dakota Army National Guard.

Further recognition of Corbett’s achievements in those arenas came in October, when he was selected by SDSU as one of six 2020-2021 Distinguished Alumni.

A native of Watertown, Corbett grew up and graduated from high school there. A hint of his future military career began early as a member of Civil Air Patrol: “I enjoyed it, a great group of mentors.”

Next came SDSU: “(Air Force) ROTC was there, and it was a great opportunity.”

During his junior year, he married Roxanne Kroeger. “We got that $100-a-month stipend (for ROTC),” he recalled. “That was a big deal then.” 

In 1976, Corbett graduated from SDSU with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force. He served a brief tour with the 934 Air Wing in Minneapolis. The Air Force, however, was not to be his military career. He transferred to the SDANG in December 1983.

On the way to his star 

“I had to start all over again as a second lieutenant,” Corbett said of his decision to go Army Guard. He would serve until 1987 as commander of Headquarters Detachment, 139th Transportation Battalion. Meanwhile, he graduated from SDSU in 1987 with a Master of Education degree in educational leadership.

His parallel careers in both military service and education would move steadily forward and upward. Additional command assignments included: 1742nd Transportation Company; 665th Maintenance Company; and 88th Troop Command.

In a fashion, military service and education intersected from June 1999 to June 2002, when Corbett served as professor of military science in the Army ROTC program at SDSU. He was recognized for procuring additional scholarships for cadets in the program. For that he thanked then President Peggy Gordon Miller, now retired Vice President for Academic Affairs Carol Peterson and the late Mike Reger, then executive vice president of administration.

“They really valued the program, tremendous supporters,” Corbett said. “And the program numbers started to go up.” Meanwhile, during this time, he accomplished a milestone in his own education: a Doctor of Education degree in strategic leadership from the University of South Dakota in 2001.

Then on a fall day in 2001, the lieutenant colonel got a double dose of good news: selection for “bird colonel” and for a year of study at the Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. “It was kind of a nice day,” Corbett said. He would begin classes in July 2003 and graduate in June 2004.

He returned to the Guard and some short stints of active duty. His Guard assignment from July 2003 to July 2004 was as facilities management officer, State Area Command South Dakota, in Rapid City. Following that, Corbett served two years, until 2006, as deputy state area commander, Joint Forces Headquarters South Dakota, in Rapid City. As deputy, he would get one of the most interesting and rewarding assignments during one of those short stints of active duty in September 2005.

“They needed people to go to Katrina,” he said. “I went down (to New Orleans) for about three to four months to work with Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré, commander, Joint Task Force Katrina.” 

The JTF, under the command of “The Ragin’ Cajun,” was responsible for coordinating military relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina.

“You’re really active duty, but you’re still a member of the South Dakota Army National Guard,” Corbett explained. 

On June 22, 2006, he would get his star: selection for promotion to brigadier general, the rank at which he would retire as assistant adjutant general. With the added responsibility that comes with being a general came additional leadership opportunities and some of the most interesting assignments of his days in uniform.

In June 2008, he served as commander of the Operation Golden Coyote in the Black Hills, a war game participated in by about 4,100 soldiers from 27 states: Army Reserve, Marines and National Guard and troops from other allied nations

“That was a pretty good deal,” Corbett explained. “We had troops from Germany and Canada; we had three Brits. It was a real opportunity for (combined) forces.” 

He would retire from military service in 2011, but he still had work to do at SDSU. In July of that year he was named dean of SDSU’s University College, which has a focus on student success and retention; prior to its creation, he had served as assistant dean and then as interim dean of the College of General Studies. He retired from SDSU in 2017 and was named an emeritus dean at the time. However, his service to town and gown continues.

While serving on the Brookings City Council, Corbett was elected mayor in 2017. With the coming of the coronavirus pandemic, which the city met with such mandates as masks and social distancing, he admits he is facing his “biggest challenge as mayor.”

“It divided our community,” the mayor said. “Brookings has always been a strong community together. I think we are probably closer together than people will admit. But some people are hanging their hat on ‘my freedoms.’ And I understand. But the majority are saying, ‘Thank you.’ We’ve got to protect ourselves. We’ve got to listen to the science, not emotions.

“And it’s tough. I couldn’t tell you how many profanity-laced emails I’ve gotten. That was probably the most disappointing to me.

“Because some of those people are people that I see walking around. I’m a Christian, and I don’t see how you get by using profanity in your language.

“But the bottom line is we’re keeping our people safe. I’m feeling good; people are very supportive and are coming together.”

Contact John Kubal at jkubal@brookingsregister.com.

COURTESY OF: The Brookings Register

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