Boise & Garden City

Idaho’s Basque torch passes to Boise’s mayor and the Bieter family

In the dark, the Bieter brothers steeled themselves for a confrontation with the Spanish guards.

Dave Bieter, 15, and John Bieter, 13, weren’t particularly surprised to see the roadblock in their path. They’d been in the Basque Country the better part of a year, so they were used to coming across temporary checkpoints in random places. They spoke English, so the guards would know they were Americans.

This was early summer 1975. Spanish dictator Francisco Franco would be dead in six months. His 35-year grip on the Basque Country and quest to eradicate the Basque language and culture were waning.

But life in the Basque Country was still tense. Nothing they’d encountered in their hometown of Boise had prepared the Bieter boys for this. It forced them to grow up fast.

They learned to avoid the appearance of participating in the political protests that popped up every so often. They knew to stop talking when someone in their group sensed a nearby “listener” — a kind of spy working for Franco’s regime who eavesdropped on Basques’ conversations.

That night, the brothers were on their way back to Onati, a university town where their family was staying, from a festival in a village a couple of miles away. They’d gotten separated from the people they were with. They were following a deteriorating paved road through the flat fields between the two towns when they caught sight of the checkpoint under a street lamp 100 yards away.

They’d cut the distance in half when they got the scare of their young lives. A guard came out from the bushes on the left side of the road, a submachine gun slung across his chest.

“He didn’t say anything. He didn’t do anything,” John Bieter said. “And to this day, we have really no idea what he was after, but it was certainly a reminder of their presence, their omnipresence.”

The guard made his way to the right side of the road and walked slowly to the checkpoint. The rest of the trip was uneventful. The boys got walked through the roadblock and back home without trouble. In fact, they never got into a really bad scrape with the Spanish authorities during their almost two years in the Basque Country, John Bieter said.

But those few seconds were formative for both of them — a moment that captured the whole of their Basque experience.

“I’d never been more afraid before,” Dave Bieter said.

Today, the Bieters are one of the most prominent Basque families in America. Dave Bieter is mayor of Boise. He might be the only Basque mayor of a major American city. John Bieter is a longtime educator who runs the Basque studies program at Boise State University. Mary Bieter is a teacher at Bishop Kelly High School. Mark Bieter is an attorney in Washington, D.C. Chris Bieter is an Ada County magistrate.

Their father, Pat Bieter, was a professor at Boise State University for 40 years and was elected to the Idaho House of Representatives in 1996. He fell in love with all things Basque after marrying Eloise Garmendia, the daughter of two Basque immigrants who met each other in Boise. He helped found BSU’s first Basque study-abroad program, during which some 80 students joined the Bieter family in the Basque Country.

Pat and Eloise Bieter died in a 1999 car crash. After the crash, Dave took over his father’s seat in the Legislature.

Two years ago, the mayor was a keynote speaker at the Mayors for Peace conference in the Basque Country.

Dave Bieter said he feels the weight of his family’s prominence among Basques, especially after the death of former Idaho Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa in 2013 and the retirement of Ben Ysursa, Cenarrusa’s successor, last year.

The third Jaialdi, a giant Basque celebration, during his tenure as mayor is about to take place. It’s also an election year for Bieter. He said he’d like to strengthen relationships with Guernica, Boise’s sister city, and the rest of the Basque Country.

“Is there any commerce to be done between the two places?” the mayor said.

Bieter also wonders whether Boise could learn from the Basque Country’s recent efforts to reduce carbon emissions through energy-efficiency measures and greater reliance on alternative energy. The region’s tradition of bicycle manufacturing would seem to have some traction in Boise, too, Bieter said.

John Bieter, meanwhile, will use this year’s Jaialdi to spread the word about Basques, their history and their culture. He’s heading a series of academic presentations whose topics include Basques at sea, Basque-American literature and a review of the program that sent the Bieter family to the Basque Country 40 years ago.