HURON — Jo Vitek, the former police chief in Watertown and a pioneer of numerous community, law enforcement and Christian outreach programs, was named the 33rd Spirit of Dakota winner Saturday night by First Gentleman Bryon Noem at the Huron Event Center.
Noem is fulfilling the role filled by First Ladies in the past, in being a member of the Spirit of Dakota Selection Committee. He was introduced by Marilyn Hoyt, the chair of the Spirit of Dakota Society Committee as the first male to serve on the Selection Committee in the history of the award.
This is the 33rd year that the Spirit of Dakota Award Society has chosen an outstanding woman from South Dakota who demonstrates leadership qualities and is respected and admired in her community and throughout the state. Hoyt said that the nominating letters are mailed to each of the Selection Committee members, with a scoring rubric. Each committee member scores each candidate and the sheets are tallied by an independent party, with the award winner revealed at Saturday evening’s banquet.
The award was created in homage to the nine-foot bronze “Spirit of Dakota” sculpture that stands on the east side of the Huron Event Center. The sculpture, created by renowned sculptor Dale Lamphere, depicts a pioneer woman leaning into the wind on the South Dakota prairie. It was dedicated in October of 1987.
The award plaque is a bronze oval with a rendition of Lamphere’s artwork in the center, mounted in a burnished gold wood frame.
Ginger Thomson of Brookings introduced the 2019 class of nominees, which included Mary Helen Wipf, Rhonda Kludt and Ruby McMillan Johannsen, all of Huron; Amber Hulse of Hot Springs, Mary Gates of Pierre and Evelyn Blum of Aberdeen, in addition to Vitek.
Vitek was hired as police chief in Watertown in 2005, becoming the first female chief in the state. She began her law enforcement career in her home state of Georgia, serving as first a detective and then sergeant in the Americus PD. After 11 years in Georgia, she served 16 years in law enforcement in Florida before traveling three-quarters of the way across the country with her husband Tony to Watertown.
Before retiring as chief in 2013, Vitek founded several programs to benefit law enforcement and the Watertown community, including Camp Chance - a summer program to build rapport with kids and local law enforcement; a drug K-9 program with a pair of teams to battle drugs in Watertown and the Police Fund, which is created beneath the umbrella of the Watertown Area Community Foundation, to help in funding these and other programs in the Watertown community.
Since her retirement, Vitek has been instrumental in creating several other programs beneficial to the community, most notably, Divine Providence of South Dakota. Divine Providence is a non-profit organization that has opportunities for people seeking healing from sexual abuse. Among the other organizations that have sprouted form Divine Providence are Hope, Healing and Hoof Prints, which offers healing through working with horses at a local ranch; Hope In God, a Christian network of the survivors of child sexual abuse and sexual assault who provide spiritual and emotional support; Providence Solutions, which provides leadership training and strategic planning for churches and; Pulpit Supply Relief, which provides lay preachers to fill in when needed in area churches.
She continues to work with the law enforcement program at Lake Area Technical School to assist with accreditation and serves on the state’s Law Enforcement Commission.
One of her nomination letters cites her quality of leading by example to inspire others to serve, leading others to give of themselves in the state and community.
“Jo was not born or raised in South Dakota,” a nominating letter states, “but I believe she embodies the Spirit of Dakota. She shared her experience as a survivor of child sexual abuse and is bringing this horror to light across Northeast South Dakota.
“Jo may say her legacy won’t be about her, but about how God used her to help those who are wounded and broken because of child abuse. But I believe it will be about her too; her character and her courage.”
She becomes the third Watertown resident to win the cherished award, joining the late Florence Bruhn (1989), and Dorothy Kellogg (2010)