Bethine Church remembered as a 'great lady,' equal partner

jsowell@idahostatesman.comFebruary 1, 2014 

Diane Ronayne first met Bethine Church in 1974, when U.S. Sen. Frank Church was running for his third six-year term.

Ronayne had gone to college in the East and remembered how Church had been one of the few members of Congress who opposed the Vietnam War. She had worked on anti-war campaigns, so Ronayne volunteered to work on Church’s campaign after she moved to Idaho.

She was asked to drive Bethine Church to an appearance at the Twin Falls County Fair. Ronayne, who now lives in Boise, was driving a 1962 Volkswagen Bug, what she described Saturday, after a celebration of Bethine Church’s life, as a “hippie car.”

She said the senator’s wife didn’t think twice about piling into the VW.

“She was an amazing woman. She didn’t care who you were. She treated everyone well,” said Ronayne, sporting a “Church for Idaho” campaign button on her jacket.

Hundreds of people attended the service for Church, who died in Boise on Dec. 21 at age 90. The remembrance was held in the Simplot Grand Ballroom at Boise State University.

Acclaimed Idaho folk singer Rosalie Sorrels, accompanied by Johnny Pisano on guitar, sang a song that was written in remembrance of Woody Guthrie, “Ashes on the Sea.” Later, during a slide show, Idaho Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb, accompanied by Chuck Smith on piano, sang the Leonard Cohen tune “Hallelujah.”

‘GREAT LADY’ NEVER JUDGED PEOPLE

Before the service, former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus called Bethine a “great lady” who assisted her husband in representing Idaho around the world.

“They were an outstanding pair. They were matched bookends,” said Andrus, who served four terms as governor and four years as U.S. secretary of the interior under President Jimmy Carter, who defeated Frank Church in the 1976 Democratic presidential primary.

Andrus said Bethine forged close relationships with members of both parties.

“She never judged people on their political label,” Andrus said.

Penny Gross, who went to work for Frank Church in 1969, at the beginning of his second term, said the Churches had a huge impact on her.

“They were mentors before that word became fashionable,” said Gross, who flew from her home in Virginia to attend the service.

Gross worked as Church’s personal secretary until after the 1980 election, when he was defeated by Caldwell Republican Steve Symms. Gross now serves as a member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

‘BRAINS AND IDEAS’

Bethine could be partisan, Gross said, but she cared about people, and her warmth and interest in others wasn’t an act. She volunteered for numerous nonprofit organizations.

“She was not content to be a nice little wife,” Gross said. “She had brains and ideas and opinions.”

Frank Church died in 1984. Five years later, his widow moved back to Boise, where she founded the Frank Church Institute at Boise State and founded the Sawtooth Society. She also helped establish the Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial in Boise.

Dan Williams, a prominent Idaho Democrat who grew up in Boise and who twice lost to former Republican U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth, recalled how Bethine wasn’t afraid to throw her weight around, if that’s what was needed.

In 1992, she and Williams were delegates to the 1992 Democratic National Convention in New York, where Bill Clinton received the nomination for president.

Bethine took Williams to a fancy Manhattan restaurant, where a group of volunteers for George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign were gathering for a private dinner. Bethine had an invitation; Williams did not. But that didn’t stop Bethine from pushing past a doorman standing with the invitation list.

“There was not a doorman born to keep Bethine from going where she wanted,” Williams said, drawing laughs.

He drew more laughs when he let on that Bethine was the “most awful” back-seat driver ever.

“Before that, I never knew you could drive too fast and too slow at the same time,” Williams said.

He said he would miss her telephone calls to talk about Boise State football and her analysis of the presidential debates.

‘CAPTAIN OF HER SHIP’

Son Chase Church praised his mother for her dedication to service. She could have essentially retired when she moved back to Idaho, but instead she helped local and national Democratic candidates and committed herself to causes she believed in.

Her founding of the institute named after her husband — to promote civic engagement and an understanding of public policy, with a focus on foreign relations — and of the Sawtooth Society, which is dedicated to protecting, preserving and enhancing the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, let her work on two of her passions.

“My mother was what I believe you would call an alpha female,” Chase Church said. “It was her way or the highway. She was the captain of her ship.”

Carolyn Buck-Luce was married to Forrest Church, a son of Frank and Bethine’s who was a Unitarian Universalist minister; he died in 2009. Buck-Luce said she considered Bethine more of a friend than her mother-in-law. She called Bethine determined, decisive and aggressive, while also caring and compassionate.

She said they did clash once, when she and Forrest bought a home and Bethine wanted to “help” them decorate, meaning letting her choose the styling for the rooms.

Buck-Luce said she told Bethine that she could be in charge when she was in her own home, but not in her son’s home.

“You could see her making those political calculations in her mind,” Buck-Luce said. “Then she got that big smile on her face, stuck out her hand and said, ‘Deal.’ ”

Before her death, Bethine spoke to Buck-Luce while sipping a ginger ale.

“She said she was looking forward to drinking White Russians on the other side,” Buck-Luce said, smiling.

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