The incredible life of Michael Saba

“Growing up in North Dakota and traveling in the Dakotas and Minnesota, I always felt comfortable here. You kind of know where to put your feet down, how the roads work — quadrants instead of squiggly lines. That sense of coming home was a part of my decision to run.”
Michael Saba, '65, District 9, South Dakota House of Representatives
By Michael Linnell
University Communications Director

PIERRE, S.D.  — Michael Saba ’65 has spent a lifetime trekking the globe.

It seems fitting his next pursuit in life is as a member of the South Dakota House of Representatives in Pierre, South Dakota. His newest adventure brings him nearly back to his hometown of Bismarck.

“Growing up in North Dakota and traveling in the Dakotas and Minnesota, I always felt comfortable here,” he said prior to beginning his term as the representative from District 9. “You kind of know where to put your feet down, how the roads work — quadrants instead of squiggly lines. That sense of coming home was a part of my decision to run.”

But, it isn’t like Saba, the former Peace Corps volunteer, Mobil Oil manager of Middle East Affairs, director of international development for Avera Health, executive director for development for Sanford Children’s Clinics, and vice president for inter-national development for ALSAC/St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, is looking for a retirement gig.

“I’ve always been interested in politics, going back to running for the United States Senate in North Dakota in 1980,” Saba said. “But I didn’t really want to run again. The party kind of found me. I had moved to South Dakota and was getting to know people and people were getting to know me, and I just started to go to some meetings. I was tremendously inspired by the Women’s March (last year) and felt this is women’s time in politics, and I was committed to finding three women to run here in our area. I helped find two but told the party if we couldn’t find another, I would run.

“I lost the election two years ago and figured I needed to find about 400-500 votes. Well, we did find those and won by 68 votes. I had to wait through a recount because of the close margin, and I guess I lost one vote in the recount. This state is very Republican, so it is not easy to win. I’m one of just 11 members of the House from the Democratic Party.”

While his politics might differ from the majority, he isn’t backing down from his convictions. Saba sees himself as a champion for the taxpayer, for international business, and — most importantly — as a bridge builder.

“When I’ve talked to my Republican colleagues and they ask what am I going to try to get done, I’ve told them I will put the taxpayer first,” he said. “That is very important to me. And, international business is a big thing for me, something I’ve been very good at. I’ve led delegations from both North and South Dakota; I feel that is a strength. After I’ve explained that, they look at me and say, ‘Are you sure you’re a democrat?’ To me, that’s one of our problems, too much of politics is polar-ity. That’s not good for our country or our state.

“I’m hoping to bridge that gap, provide skills that can make a difference. I want to use my strengths to assist.”

Saba’s international business has its roots from an unlikely place — the Peace Corps. It was still a concept and didn’t have a name when he first heard about the pro-gram during a speech from then Senator John Kennedy.

“I can remember as a kid, my father had a set of World Books and I read every single volume of those. I was fascinated with the world,” he said. “When I heard Kennedy speak of what is now the Peace Corps, my goodness, this is the experience I want to have. There is a bigger world out there and I want to experience it.”

During his time in the Peace Corps, his penchant for helping others, especially children, began. He worked as a teacher in Malaysia and Thailand in the 1960s and helped build a children’s hospital in Egypt, setting in motion a passion for helping that led to his involvement in Avera Health, Sanford Health, and St. Jude Children’s Hospital.

“One of the most important things I learned in the Peace Corps is how privileged we are in this country, how much we have,” he said. “With St. Jude, a saying that is imbedded in me forever is, ‘children should not die in the dawn of life.’ It’s unacceptable. Through the re-search and work at St. Jude, we now have a 95 percent cure rate for leukemia. But, in El Salvador, for example, where there are kids who have cancer but don’t know it because it hasn’t been diagnosed, 95 percent doesn’t mean a thing. We have done a lot, but we can do a lot more.”

Saba took a chance to introduce himself to Kennedy during the campaign speech in Fargo. It wasn’t his first meeting with a sitting or future president, nor was it his last. He has met every former president since Eisenhower except for former President George W. Bush — of whom he feels confident he will still get to meet. Some of it has been being in the right place at the right time and some has been a mantra of adventure handed down from his father, Naif.

“I’ve been told my life has been Forest Gump-ish,” Saba joked. “But for me, I’ve never been afraid to move forward. My dad was fearless and when Eisenhower was in Bismarck, he hauled me over the convertible — security was a little different then —  to shake Eisenhower’s hand as a kid. For Kennedy, I just pushed to the front of the line. Lyndon Johnson was circumstantial; he stopped in Malaysia on his way to Vietnam and journalist Bill Moyers met some of us working in the Peace Corps, so he brought us to the tar-mac where the president’s plane was and I shook his hand. We got a copy of that and it was our Christmas card that year.”

His meeting with Kennedy and the creation of the Peace Corps also prompted his move from North Dakota State University to Minot State, where he would earn biology and teacher education degrees.

“I started out in pre-med with a pharmacy scholar-ship to NDSU,” he said. “I finished two and a half years, but realized it wasn’t for me. I needed some life experiences, so I dropped out of college to go south and worked on a shrimp boat and as a carpenter. I knew I needed to go back to college because at the time you needed a degree for the Peace Corps and I was intrigued by Minot State. I really liked the attention you could get from the professors at a smaller college. It just felt right. For me it was a tremendously good decision. It was really the right choice for me. I’m proud to have been at Minot State.”

His sense of adventure almost cost him everything, however. While working on putting together a conference with Western and Middle Eastern oil companies and government officials in 1990, he was rounded up by Saddam Hussein’s regime and held hostage for 10 days in the Al Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad. Iraq had just invaded Kuwait. To add to the dilemma, his wife was eight and a half months pregnant with their youngest son, Daniel.

“I always did a lot of traveling with my work and kind of said in the back of my mind, ‘Saba, you’re going to get caught in one of those situations,’” he said. “I was scheduled to leave Baghdad at noon and had called a taxi to go to the airport, but the taxi driver said the airport was closed. That seemed strange, but the driver said it happens from time to time. I went back in and my wife called to ask if I was OK. I didn’t know what was going on, so I turned on the TV and CNN was reporting there were troops heading

 into Kuwait and all hell broke loose.”

The Americans in Baghdad were moved to the Al Rasheed and remained there.

“We weren’t called hostages, but were referred to as guests,” he said. “There were Americans and Brits, all Westerners, a lot of oil field workers. The oil field workers came in with handcuffs and had guns on them. We were able to go to the American Embassy in a bus to get a briefing, but the embassy wasn’t much help at all.”

After 10 days, Saba — with the help of 1960s British pop singer Engelbert Humperdinck — decided he was not going to miss the birth of his child and escaped with another American via taxi to the Jordanian border.

“I was walking in the hotel and they had Muzak playing, probably the whole time, you don’t really hear it, but that day I heard Engelbert singing, ‘Please release me, let me go,’” he sang. “I said, ‘Engelbert, thank you brother, I’m out of here.’ It was getting weird in the hotel; more Americans were coming in handcuffed, we were lined up and didn’t know if we would be shot or not. We got a taxi about four in the morning and took off out the back door. We were stopped twice by the Iraqi troops. I could speak pretty good Arabic at that point and I told them, ‘I’m not in this fight with you. My wife is eight and a half months pregnant and I just want to get home before my son is born.’ Each time, they told us to come in and have some tea and cookies, and then they let us go our way.”

After his harrowing escape, Saba worked to release the rest of the hostages, joining a delegation that included boxing legend Muhammad Ali and former Texas governor John Connally. Saba later testified before Congress and appeared on shows like “Nightline” and “Oprah” to communicate the story of bringing hostages home and later met Humperdinck after telling the story of his escape.

“Of all the hostages taken with me, only one died, and that was from a heart attack,” Saba said. “Through all of these experiences, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is it isn’t how much I knew, it was how little I knew.”

The freshman senator from Sioux Falls will use his expertise from decades of life lessons as he begins to navigate his first foray into public service.

“To understand issues,” he added, “we have to be sensitive enough in our lack of knowledge to see problems from other’s perspectives.”

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Published: 03/22/19   

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