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‘An absolute giant in the fight for human rights.’ Idaho remembers Marilyn Shuler

Marilyn Shuler, a longtime human rights leader and for 20 years director of the Idaho Human Rights Commission, was lauded Friday as a pioneer, a mentor and a “fierce” advocate for the powerless.

Shuler died Friday morning surrounded by her two sons and their families “in peace, good spirits and without pain,” grandson Johnny Shuler said. She was 77.

The cause of death was lung failure, said son David Shuler. A memorial service is being planned.

Shuler spent her final day “speaking, laughing and reminiscing,” even enjoying a few sips of wine with the more than 30 friends who visited her in the hospital, her grandson said.

“She wanted everyone to rest assured that she truly felt that this was the right timing for her death and that she was not scared to face the next frontier,” Johnny Shuler said.

Shuler attended the 2017 Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at the Idaho Statehouse on Jan. 16 to help hand out brochures, said Linda Goodman, administrator of the Idaho Human Rights Commission.

“She wouldn’t have missed it,” Goodman said. “Marilyn was so fiercely independent. She always did things her way until the very end.”

Goodman, whom Shuler hired for the commission in 1988, called Shuler a mentor and “a wonderful person who gave so much to so many.”

And she was tough. Shuler contracted polio as a young girl when she was in Catholic school.

“One story Marilyn loved to share was about the nuns at school,” said Goodman. “They were strict. They told her, ‘You might have polio, but you’re not going to get special treatment.’ 

“They let her take the elevator, but that was it. Those experiences made her the fighter she was. They empowered her and she learned the notion of wanting to empower others.”

‘A GUIDING LIGHT’

Lisa Uhlmann co-founded the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial with Shuler in 2002. Uhlmann called her friend “a guiding light for human rights, a hero in the state of Idaho.”

“Marilyn taught all of us to lead the good fight for equality and against discrimination,” said Uhlmann. “She will be terribly missed. She meant the world to all of us and this leaves a void in all of our lives.”

Marcia Franklin, a producer and host at Idaho Public Television, was a close friend of Shuler’s and interviewed her several times, including for the Idaho StoryCorps project where Shuler talked about facing discrimination because of her polio.

Shuler, said Franklin, “excelled at being a human being.”

“She had all of these accomplishments, but would be the first to tell you ... that she wasn’t the hero. Everyone who helped her stay alive and stay in her home and treated her like a normal person were the heroes,” said Franklin.

Boise state Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb visited Shuler in the hospital. “She was still in charge,” said Buckner-Webb. “She gave me my marching orders for what she was expecting from me. She was amazing. And she could be a fierce woman.”

A CAREER OF SERVICE

Shuler was born in California and raised in Oregon and Utah. Her accomplishments and service were wide ranging. She led the Idaho Human Rights Commission for two decades, including the era in which the Aryan Nations group was active in the state. Shuler formalized many of the processes for grievances and other issues that still guide the commission today, Goodman said.

Shuler served on numerous boards, including the Boise School Board and the City Club of Boise. She co-founded a book club for human rights and was on the original board of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Boise State University. Shuler was a volunteer teacher with the YWCA nontuition kindergarten program for low-income children, and also volunteered as a guardian ad litem for abused and neglected children.

Shuler was on the advisory board of the College of Public Affairs at BSU and on the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy. She held degrees from the University of Utah and Boise State University and received honorary doctorates from Boise State University and the University of Idaho.

Her husband, John Shuler, a social worker who became the state coordinator for youth rehabilitation for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, died in 1985. The Shulers had two sons, David and Thomas, and five grandchildren.

‘MORAL COMPASS’

Shuler’s death prompted state leaders past and present to comment on her good works.

Former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus praised Shuler as a “champion for human rights and basic decency.”

“Marilyn Shuler was our moral compass in the ongoing fight to ensure that all people are treated with respect, dignity, compassion and as the law and the Constitution demand,” Andrus said.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter called her “a guiding light and an Idaho icon of compassion and decency.”

Boise Mayor Dave Bieter remembered her “voice for the marginalized and less fortunate.” And BSU President Bob Kustra cited her “sense of humor, selflessness and unwearied spirit.”

‘WHO COULD ASK FOR MORE?’

In a 2009 Statesman story, Shuler talked about how her personal challenges shaped her life’s mission.

“I am horrendously bothered by the disparity between rich and poor, both in the United States and throughout the world. It makes me ill. So many people live on just a dollar a day; children are hungry. It’s shameful. It’s not right. If all of us did just a little bit, we could turn it around,” she said.

Shuler told of how childhood polio compromised her health and made it necessary for her to use a wheelchair for the last part of her life. Still, she continued to work and be a model for others.

“You could spend your life feeling sorry for yourself, but why would you do that? Where’s the good?” she said.

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