Tim Woodward: There’ll never be another Bethine Church

She made a lasting impression on everybody — from kindergarteners to commoners to first ladies.

January 5, 2014 

Bethine Church sits in the courtyard of her East Boise home in 2003, where Democrats used gather to remember the good old days and discuss how to rebuild the party.

CHRIS BUTLER — idaho Statesman file

When you write a column every other week, it’s hard to jump on breaking news in a timely fashion. But I knew the late Bethine Church for most of my life and couldn’t let her go without writing something.

My introduction to Church, who died Dec. 21, came long before she and her late husband were household names in Idaho politics. A very young Frank Church was running for the Idaho Legislature — a job that, given his liberal views, would have had him on all fours gnawing at the earth before his first session ended. Idaho voters spared him that, giving him time to prepare for bigger things.

I remember that campaign more than most, for an excellent reason. Her name was Bea Hally, and her youngest son was my best friend. Tim Hally and I were 5 years old and less interested in Frank Church than in Sheriff Spud. But his mother somehow made it seem important, even glamorous, for us to help her deliver campaign pamphlets around the neighborhood.

The guy whose picture was on the pamphlets seemed fairly glamorous himself. Idaho politicians in those days tended to have names such as Clarence or Orville and bear an unsettling resemblance to Elmer Fudd. This guy was young and handsome, and had a wife who could charm a scorpion.

One day Mrs. Church stopped by to talk campaign logistics with Mrs. Hally. She also took time to chat with the two small boys on the porch, disarming us with her friendliness and thousand-watt smile. Kids are hard to win over, but she did it effortlessly.

Frank Church lost his Idaho legislative race that year, but at age 30 he won a seat in the U.S. Senate, making him the fifth-youngest person ever to serve there. He was smart and eloquent, but as much as anything it was Bethine’s personality, political acumen and attention to detail that got him elected.

It was interesting to watch them work a crowd. As people came forward to greet them, Bethine would casually say, “Frank, you remember Dorcas and Doris Diffeldonger; they have that beautiful farm where we had the fundraiser out by Dogwater last year.”

“Of course!” the senator would reply, never letting on that he was clueless. The running joke was that he never remembered a name and she never forgot one.

Their introduction to my wife, however, was one even he remembered. I was a rookie Statesman reporter; my wife was a new Idaho resident. Campaign ads were still fresh in mind when we bumped into the Churches at the Idaho Press Club’s New Year’s Eve Party.

“I know you!” my bashful wife said, buttonholing the senator. “You’re Bud Davis!”

She had committed what could have been an unforgivable blunder, confusing an unsuccessful congressional contender with the state’s senior senator. But Bethine came to the rescue, smoothing away the gaffe by saying, “Yes, there is a resemblance, but this is Sen. Church. I’m Bethine Church. And you are? … ”

She never forgot us again, annually including us on her famously long Christmas card list. She sent out hundreds of cards every year.

When her husband concluded his unsuccessful 1976 presidential campaign, I was part of a team that interviewed him in the Statesman publisher’s office. To everyone’s horror, I reached to shake his hand and spilled a cup of scalding coffee into his shoe.

He couldn’t have been more gracious, laughing and telling me not to worry about it (while frantically hopping about trying to remove his shoe). Bethine laughed every time she told that story.

No one enjoyed a good laugh more. My favorite photo of her is one taken with Jackie Kennedy at a Washington reception. In every other photo I’ve ever seen of her, Kennedy looks composed as first lady — almost regal — but in this one she and Bethine are laughing so hard they looked as if they might explode.

“What was she laughing at?” I asked Bethine.

“I’d just told her a dirty joke about Richard Nixon,” she replied, laughing all over again.

That’s the Bethine Church I’ll remember. Not as a teller of dirty jokes, of course — she was too classy to make a habit of doing that — but as an important, involved person (fighting for the White Clouds right up to the end) who never lost the common touch or her love of Idaho and Idahoans.

She rubbed elbows with the rich and powerful but retained a genuine sweetness. If something I wrote tickled her, she made a point of calling or writing to say so. She showed up at signings, bought my books, sent congratulations on my retirement. She treated everyone from power brokers to paupers with kindness and sincere interest in their lives.

She was our Elder Stateswoman, and one of the best friends Idaho ever had. There never will be anyone else quite like Bethine Church.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on www.woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.

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