Influence and kindness: Bethine Church remembered

Sen. Church’s partner and widow remained ‘engaged in the arena right up to the end’

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comDecember 23, 2013 

  • Survivors, services, memorials

    Bethine Church is survived by her son, Chase, and his wife, Pam, of Boise, and was preceded in death by son Frank Forrester Church IV. Her six grandchildren are Frank Forrester Church V of Seattle, Nina Church Adams of Portland, Andrew and Monica Church of Boise, and Nathan and Jacob Luce. She also leaves three great-grandchildren.

    Her cremation and scattering of ashes will be private. The family asks that in lieu of flowers, people consider donations to the Frank Church Institute at Boise State and the Sawtooth Society.

    A public service will be held in late January or early February, with details to be announced.

From Franklin D. Roosevelt to Barack Obama, Bethine Church’s sunny but dogged personality left an indelible mark on Idaho politics.

She helped elect her father, Chase Clark, governor in 1940 as FDR won his third term. Last year, had Idaho favored a Democrat, she would have cast one of four votes in the Electoral College for the president.

“That’s a big sweep of history,” said Rod Gramer, who co-wrote the 1994 biography of her husband, the late Sen. Frank Church. “And she wasn’t just a spectator. She lived it.”

An uncle, Barzilla Clark, also was governor; a cousin, D. Worth Clark, a U.S. senator. Her husband was the only Idaho Democrat ever re-elected to the Senate, serving from 1957 to 1981. “Her family was the Kennedys or the Bushes of Idaho politics,” Gramer said.

Her walls were crowded with intimate photos of the Churches with the famed and powerful: Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Carter; first ladies Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon and Barbara Bush; Juan Carlos of Spain, Golda Meier of Israel and Fidel Castro of Cuba; Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Jimmy Durante and John Wayne; and masters of the Senate including J. William Fulbright, Jacob Javits, Richard Lugar and Mike Mansfield.

Her death late Saturday at age 90 in her own bed in her Southeast Boise home prompted tributes Sunday from across the spectrum. GOP Gov. Butch Otter said Church was “a great ambassador” for Idaho “whose life exemplified civic virtue.” Former Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus hailed her work on conservation issues and called her “a force of nature.”

“Idaho has lost a great friend and advocate,” said Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo. “Bethine had a way to mix civility with politics that is too often forgotten on the national scene. I will miss her input and charm, and I join with all Idahoans in mourning the passing of this Idaho legend.”

A FAREWELL AT HOME

Church, who grew up in Mackay, Idaho Falls and Boise, lost her husband to cancer in 1984, when he was 59. Rather than remain in the Washington, D.C., area, she returned to Boise, where she had attended Boise High and Boise Junior College before graduating from the University of Michigan.

She established a political salon in her home on Walnut Street, a few blocks from former GOP Gov. Bob Smylie, nurturing hundreds of Democratic candidates, including two-term Congressman Larry LaRocco, an ex-Church aide.

“She never stopped teaching me about politics and public service,” LaRocco said. “She was great at retail politics, a fantastic political strategist, and she never forgot a name or a face.”

She was no saint, however. She held staffers to exacting standards and was known to kick the furniture to make a point.

Another protege and former Senate staffer, two-time gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brady, said Church “was not always an easy personality for me to deal with.”

Nevertheless, Brady said, he found himself sobbing at the news of her passing.

“I was mourning Bethine as the last mother I had in this world,” Brady said. “I knew she cared for me and tried to protect me as I entered politics myself, failed twice, and then moved near where she was living in Boise.”

When she died in a new, smaller home in the Lakewood subdivision shortly after 6 p.m. Saturday, she was looking at a poinsettia gifted by lifelong friend Gisela Burke and listening to Christmas music with her son, Chase, and his wife, Pam.

Her son was brushing her dark but thinned hair when she took her last breath.

“She had always wanted to die at home,” Chase Church said.

A ‘MIGHTY FINE’ HORSE

Church titled her 2003 memoir “A Lifelong Affair: My Passion for People and Politics.”

“It wasn’t an act,” said Betty Richardson, a former Church aide who served as the U.S. attorney for Idaho during the Clinton administration and ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2002. “She truly liked people. She met people where they were and valued them regardless of their station in life.”

Richardson remembers first meeting Bethine Church at a campaign event in the early 1960s, when the senator was seeking his second term and Richardson was the 9-year-old daughter of a politically gifted union leader in Lewiston.

“I just remember thinking she was the most glamorous person I’d ever met — sort of a maternal version of Jacqueline Kennedy,” Richardson said. “When I think of Bethine, I think of that illuminating smile. It didn’t just come from her lips. It radiated from the eyes and the heart.”

Marty Peterson met her during the 1968 re-election campaign. He wound up on the staff and became a trusted adviser to Democratic and Republican governors.

Church would give odd driving instructions, Peterson recalled, suddenly calling for a right turn off the highway onto a lonesome country road. “Then, a couple miles down the road, she would tell you to pull into a farm yard where she would get out and go knock on the door. There would be a delighted surprise on the face of the elderly woman who answered the door.”

The farm woman, in turn, “would have called each of her seven children and her six brothers and sisters — all Idaho voters — to tell them about the wonderful surprise visit she had from Bethine Church.”

Said Richardson: “She was unfailing in remembering to thank people and to take care of even the smallest kindnesses.”

One of her most famous moments of political deftness came in Salmon in the 1970s, when an opponent of federal wilderness designation rode his horse into a town hall meeting. Asked what she made of the protest, Church said, “That’s a mighty fine looking horse.”

STAYING RELEVANT

After her husband’s death, Church called herself “not just his widow but his public relations person.”

In 1972, Sen. Church had authored legislation establishing the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, with help from Republican Sen. Len Jordan and GOP Congressmen Jim McClure and Orval Hansen. To protect that legacy, his widow established the Sawtooth Society to advocate for the SNRA. Last month, she wrote an op-ed article urging Obama to expand protection in the area by creating a Boulder-White Clouds National Monument.

Her last public appearance was Dec. 10, at the 30th annual conference of the Frank Church Institute at Boise State, where the topic was the perils of overreaching national security surveillance.

“Bethine was not a woman stuck in the past,” said Gramer, the Church biographer and former journalist who now runs Idaho Business for Education. “She was always looking forward and she was engaged in the arena right to the end.”

At the conference luncheon, Church looked more frail than ever. A recent visit to the emergency room had revealed evidence of congenitive heart failure and several small strokes in the past year. The hospital visit left her thin arms purple from the intravenous invasions.

“I’m glad to be here,” she told the stream of well-wishers who greeted her.

She told GOP Secretary of State Ben Ysursa she grieved that the popular official was retiring; Ysursa leaned down to Church in her wheelchair and kissed her on the forehead.

Though her speech was slowed, son Chase said his mother was still reading novels and the daily newspaper. Announcing her death on Facebook, he said she simply died of old age.

Bethine Church was ready. In 2004, she prepared a list of wishes for her funeral, including honorary pallbearers.

Five of those — Jane Oppenheimer, Clareene Wharry, Marylu Burns, Carl Burke and Byron Johnson — preceded her in death.

Her ashes will be scattered in two places: Morris Hill Cemetery where her husband is buried and her name will join his on the headstone; and at the Frank and Bethine Church Overlook at Galena Summit above the Sawtooth Valley they both helped preserve.

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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