Sometimes the person doing the most for a community is the one drawing the least attention to themselves while doing it. That’s one of many fitting descriptions of Mike Tennyson.
The others? Businessman. Caring. Husband. Generous. Father. Grandfather. Loving. Philanthropist. Honest. Friend. Confidant. Partner.
Ask anyone who knows him, another description often used when discussing Mike is community-minded. Whenever Tennyson takes on a new project in Custer, like the recent acquisition and transformation of the former Flintstones Bedrock City into Buffalo Ridge Camp Resort, one of the questions he asks himself is, “How can this improve Custer?”
Whether it’s a blockbuster deal in the public spotlight or behind the scenes giving and working to make our community better for both businesses and residents alike, Mike’s oft-stated goal of making Custer a better place for all has made him the choice as this year’s Custer County Chronicle Citizen of the Year.
And this is no lifetime achievement award. The purchase of Flintstones and its transition into a resort that will house top-notch facilities and entertainment is just one of the reasons—many of which are never made public—that made Mike an easy selection as Citizen of the Year.
Mike is a lifelong resident of Custer County who has been married to wife, Bonnie, for 44 years and who has three children the couple raised in Custer.
“Mike and I met when we were 15 one summer night in downtown Custer,” Bonnie recalls. “He and his friend asked me and my friend to go for a ride and we said yes!”
Over the years Mike has been a developer and general contractor, and he and his various companies have developed and constructed hundreds of homes, over 1,000 apartment units and hundreds of thousands of square feet of commercial and institutional properties.
He’s involved in multiple business in Rapid City and Custer, including Custer Hospitality. He has developed well-known subdivisions in Custer—Granite Heights, Woodland Meadows Stone Hill and Boot Hill—all of which are managed through Tennyson Investments.
All told, there are over 40 companies he has his hand in that are managed out of his Custer office, most of which are in or around Custer and Rapid City.
From humble beginnings as a construction crew hand, he built himself into the business magnate he is today. But seeing only the business person, is to see only the smallest piece of Mike Tennyson.
“Mike’s passion is helping others and making our community a better place,” Bonnie said. “He often shares his time, expertise and experience with others to help them succeed.”
Mike has been on numerous professional boards and received a bevy of awards in his industry, but those close to him say it is his giving — whether monetarily to a charity or of his time such as on the Custer School District Board of Education — that is among his favorite “trophies.”
Tim Creal, school board superintendent from 2001-11, said Mike’s leadership during his time as board president was instrumental and that his qualities as a leader were evident during his tenure on the board.
“He was a mentor for me. He’s very logical and practical about things,” he said. “I loved working with him. He is very focused, not only on his business, but on treating people right and doing good things for people. Most people see him as a business person. His desires were to make Custer a good place to live. That’s his home. He loves it there.
“Every conversation I have with him is about the positive things going on in Custer. And that’s not just what he’s doing, that’s anything that’s positive.”
“I’m convinced we would still be in our old school buildings if it were not for Mike’s dogged efforts as president of the school board,” said John Culberson, a friend of the Tennyson family. “Mike took on a very difficult task and performed admirably for a number of years. He pushed forward with a building plan that was best for our kids at what was, at times, great personal cost and vilification.”
In 1969, Mike Pahl met Mike Tennyson when they lived on the same dormitory wing at South Dakota State University. He recalls that Mike left college his sophomore year to work construction in Denver. By the time Pahl had graduated from college the Tennysons had moved back to Custer and owned The Chief Restaurant. Pahl helped Mike with some of the first houses he built as a business owner and also worked at the restaurant for his friend.
Pahl, a former guidance counselor for the Custer School District, said Mike’s leadership as board president was instrumental for both him and the school district.
“Whenever you are in Mike’s presence, it always brings out the best in you,” Pahl said. “I was in the solar business with him in the early days and just knew he had a business head on him. You just knew he had that gift of being able to keep all these balls in the air. Most of us don’t have the ability to do that. But he’s still a humble guy. That’s what I really appreciate about him.”
Pat Tlustos has known Mike for 30 years and has been doing business with him in some fashion since that time. Around 25 years ago, the two started developing a couple of multi-family projects in Rapid City. Since then, they have developed a number of hotels in Custer together and have developed around 400 residential lots in the area, along with apartments, industrial areas and office space.
“Mike is about as level-headed and steady a guy as you will ever meet,” Tlustos said. “He’s as honest as the day is long. Mike and I have operated on a handshake for 25 years. He’s been a tremendous partner. You have to be extremely selective in who you pick as a partner. I have been extremely blessed. You can’t find anyone with higher integrity or intelligence than Mike.”
After acquiring the former Flintstones, Mike and his partners immediately set out to bring high quality entertainment to the new camp resort with the hope of attracting more people to Custer and keeping them here longer.
“Our goal has been to break even with our entertainment endeavors in an effort to encourage people to come to Custer more often and stay longer each time,” said Jerad Tennyson, who works for his father and oversees much of what goes on at the new camp resort. “Our goal is for Custer to become a destination again.”
Mike Tennyson toured the state in high school as a member of the “Chaquita Brand Banana Band,” which his son said was both the beginning and end of his foray into the entertainment business. Nonetheless, he still understands its importance, which has led to his push to bring well known entertainers into the fold at the camp resort.
Mike’s business acumen may be surpassed only in size by his big heart, one of the things his wife says she loves most about him. His daughter, Sonja, said her father has a “big heart of gold” and frequently donates his time, expertise and money to several area organizations.
“He has a passion for education and children, but his biggest love is for Custer and this community,” she said. “There is so much he does for the community that people don’t even know about. He doesn’t do it for the recognition. He helps because he wants to see Custer and its community members succeed.”
“Mike is a caring person and is involved and willing to help in a number of different areas,” Tlustos said.
“He’s a very generous person. Even in some of his business dealings I know for a fact he makes decisions based not on what financial good it will bring him, but how it would impact this community,” Pahl said.
Creal said, while most of his dealings with Mike have been on a professional level as school board member and superintendent, whenever he sees Mike outside that professional arena, he sees a man who is very friendly and willing to visit with anyone who asks.
“Even if he was pressed for time, he took time to visit with people,” he said. “He cares a lot about people.”
A reception for Mike will be held this Friday, Jan. 6, at the Buglin’ Bull restaurant. The reception will begin at 5 p.m. Friends, family and all those impacted by Mike’s kindness and generosity are invited to attend.
“I consider him a personal friend. Whenever I come back to the Black Hills I always have lunch with him,” Creal said. “I really treasure my time working with Mike. In my opinion, there is nobody more deserving than Mike Tennyson.”
“I am beyond blessed to have Mike Tennyson as my dad. He is a kind, patient and loving father,” Sonja said. “I admire his strong work ethic and devotion to our community. He and my mom started their marriage with very little and have worked tirelessly to build a beautiful life for our family. His love is unconditional and he is always there for me when I need advice, a reality check or a hug.”
“We struggled with him for years to get a haircut so he’s a little more presentable to the bank,” Tlustos said with a laugh. “He’s a good man. It’s a very well-deserved honor.”
“Mike is one of those people, he’s always leant a listening ear to what you have to say and is always willing to give his advice,” Pahl said. “When you’re in Mike’s presence, he always wants to know how things are going for you. He doesn’t talk about himself.”
“Over the years I have worked with and observed a number of property developers,” Culberson said. “Mike has consistently been one of the best and most ethical in his business dealings. He tries to do the right thing at every turn. He and Bonnie are good friends and (wife) Susan and I are proud to know them.”
“Mike Tennyson has been a driving force behind so many great projects in our community, from businesses like restaurants and motels to new high school and elementary school, to residential developments like Boot Hill,” said Chronicle publisher Charley Najacht. “Last year the Custer native announced the purchase of the Flintstone’s Bedrock City property with plans for developing a theme park and building another new motel. It is this kind of vision that has helped Custer grow and prosper in the past, as it will continue to do in the future with people like Mike around.”
Jerad calls his father a “problem solver” who enjoys seeking opportunities and creating projects to fulfill community needs. He said his father holds him to very high standards as an employee, which he refers to as “managing by exception,” meaning that he assumes everything is perfect unless he hears otherwise.
“Two quotes come to mind: ‘Perfect is close enough’ and ‘If it is worth doing, it’s worth doing right,’” Jerad said. “When things don’t go right, he is a great person to come to for direction. He addresses the facts and determines the best solution to simplify the problem.”
Jerad said he doesn’t expect his father to let go of his business passion any time soon, but has built a strong team to carry the workload so he can spend winters in Hawaii without worrying about the day-to-day operations.
His winters in Hawaii is one perk of a lifetime spent both building himself and his family up while also continually striving to raise Custer up. It’s just another peek behind the curtain of the Mike Tennyson many people don’t get to see.
“Even with the long hours he put in working when we were younger, he always made sure to make time for his children and family,” Sonja said. “Deep down, he is really just a big teddy bear.”