Senator George McGovern, one of the first politicians I covered as a reporter, has died. We last saw him just weeks ago at his 90th birthday party, a celebration at the Newseum that was an ode to a genuinely modest man who attained extraordinary achievements.

Long before he was a senator, he was a World War II flying ace, a decorated war hero. But he grew up in an era when people didn’t brag about their achievements, or exploit them for political gain. The same was true with Bob Dole, another losing presidential candidate who  was a war hero.

These two men of the prairie, of different parties, worked alongside each other and with other for the greater public good on many causes, including fighting hunger and providing food for the starving here and abroad. Neither Dole nor McGovern would recognize the chasm that now divides Washington.

I have many McGovern memories, all of them colored  today by his gentle smile and soft-spoken voice. This one, out of character, was summed up by CRR in a USA Today column:

In 1980, on a Saturday morning a few days before an election he had to know in his bones he was losing to Jim Abdnor, George McGovern stormed into the Associated Press office in Sioux Falls, S.D., where my wife, Sandy Johnson, then a 24-year-old rookie, was working the desk.

The usually even-keeled McGovern was mightily upset about a story the wire service had run, and he let her know it. The way she told it, an angry George McGovern was quite a sight. A George McGovern gesturing angrily with an unlit cigar was even more out of character, and it is something I still have trouble getting my head around.

They agreed to disagree and parted ways.

A few days later, Sandy got a handwritten apology from the senator. And forever after, almost every time my path crossed with McGovern’s, he would ask about her before he said anything else. Often, he’d offer regrets about blowing his top years and years before.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.