After coming within an eyelash of being elected governor in 1986, David Leroy could have retreated from the public eye.
Instead, his research, advocacy and collection of Abraham Lincoln memorabilia will forever connect the martyred president and Idaho.
Leroy's affection for the story of Idaho's origins was in full bloom Monday as he presided over commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Idaho Territory.
Following the 45-minute event on the Capitol steps, Leroy was characteristically modest when I complimented him on a moving ceremony.
"You can't screw up good material," he replied, standing not far from the Lincoln statue he helped relocate to a prominent spot.
Leroy and his wife, Nancy, then joined legislative leaders downstairs, where red ribbon hung across the doors of the Capitol's largest meeting room, just renamed the Lincoln Auditorium.
In a class act, Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill handed the ceremonial shears to Nancy Leroy, her husband's partner in building a collection that the Idaho State Historical Society calls "arguably the most significant grouping of contemporary artifacts ever assembled relating to the relationship of Abraham Lincoln and the Rocky Mountain West."
Last year, the Leroys gave 1,500 objects to the state - books, letters, photos, cartoons, relics, paintings, statuary, campaign mementos and family items. They will be housed in a new Lincoln Legacy Exhibition at the Idaho History Center on Old Penitentiary Road. The exhibit will include a reconstruction of the Cabinet Room and the box in Ford's Theater where the president was assassinated.
Outside the renamed Capitol auditorium is an 1863 portrait of Lincoln, which hung in Wanamaker's Department Store in Philadelphia until the 1970s. The Leroys donated the work this year. Also on the wall is a new plaque, including this from Lincoln: "There is both a power and a magic in public opinion."
Though Leroy came so close to being governor, he's never showed a whiff of bitterness about the narrowly divided public.
A Republican lawyer, Leroy was lieutenant governor in 1986 when he led the race against Democrat Cecil Andrus until the wee hours the morning after the election. Only when North Idaho's Shoshone and Bonner counties delivered big margins for Andrus did Leroy lose by 3,635 votes.
On Monday, Leroy offered a fresh view of what creating Idaho meant to a president fighting to save the union.
Establishing the Idaho Territory on March 4, 1863, killed the potential expansion of slavery in what now includes Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. The Civil War's outcome was still in doubt that day, four months before Gettysburg.
On March 4, 1849, Lincoln stayed up all night to cast a U.S. House vote barring slavery in New Mexico and California. Both his inaugural addresses were on March 4, in 1861 and 1865. On March 4, 1862, he testified on Capitol Hill about the conduct of the Civil War, then going badly for the union.
"But the most important March 4 of Lincoln's life was none of those," Leroy told the Legislature, statewide elected officials and a large crowd.
"If the nation was a board game, then Idaho Territory was a blocking maneuver," Leroy said, noting that Idaho gold and silver helped finance the war.
Three other speakers - the Rev. Jesus Camacho of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Boise, Gov. Butch Otter, and Josiah Pinkham of the Nez Perce Tribe - sounded the theme of freedom and justice.
Otter signs official correspondence with the state's motto, "Esto Perpetua," or "may thou last forever."
"It means that we want it to last forever and that we will work to make sure that it does," Otter said.
Said Pinkham in the benediction: "We acknowledge all of those things that came before us - those things that were greater than ourselves - because they provided for us to be here so that we could come here and mark out the lines on the land, so we could call this Idaho, we could call this home."
Thank you, Mr. Leroy, for helping us remember how we got here.
Dan Popkey: 377-6438