Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The passing of an 'institution'

Current and former county commissioners react to the death of Rupert House


Former Blaine County Commissioner Dennis Wright said the death of Rupert House at age 92 over the weekend marks the end of an era in the Wood River Valley.

"He was an institution," said Wright, who became a member of the County Commission in 1996, the same year House left.

Wright had connections to House that went beyond their sharing of elected office. Wright's father, the late Charles Wright, was a contemporary of House's and worked for him as a hard-rock miner in the valley during the first half of the 20th century, including at the Silver Star Queen Mine in Bellevue.

Another of House's contemporaries, William "Bill" Bonner Shappee, passed away at the age of 88 earlier this month. Like Wright's father, Shappee worked with House at the Silver Star Queen.

Wright said the men who worked for House both admired and trusted him. He was known for being able to keep his men safe. Being able to trust your foreman was essential in a high-stakes business like underground mining.

The generation of valley residents who helped build the valley is fading away, and especially so now with the loss of House, Wright said.

"They were all part of the same class of people," he said.

Wright said they don't make men like House anymore. His was the generation that helped make the United States into the country that it is today.

"I guarantee when they made Rupert they threw away the mold," he said. "He's what this country used to be."

Wright last saw House in the past few months while visiting the Bridgeview Estates nursing home in Twin Falls. Wright said House was staying there until about eight weeks ago, when his family moved him to a different facility in Caldwell.

Wright visits Bridgeview Estates regularly because his mother is a resident there. He said his mother would often speak with House, and generally about the same topic.

"She said all he wants to talk about is Triumph," Wright said.

Often when he would bump into House—who was usually out walking the hallways at the nursing home—the former commissioner would ask Wright how the current County Commission was doing.

"He always had something to say," he said. "He was still very lucid."

Bellevue City Administrator Tom Blanchard served on the County Commission with House during the 1990s.

Blanchard said House intended to leave the tailings in Triumph, which had become potentially valuable due to improvements in separation technology, to his kids, but was unaware of environmental hazards that would mark them as a federal Superfund cleanup site in the 1990s. Despite the setback, House stayed on at his East Fork farm, selling parcels of real estate before selling the entire mine two years ago.

"Rupert was smart investor," Blanchard said. "I think he made out quite well, despite the difficulties. He also proved by staying there and living to be 92 that it was a safe place. Living in Triumph didn't diminish him in the least as far as I can tell."

Current Blaine County Commissioner Tom Bowman, who was appointed to the county Planning and Zoning Commission in 1991 under House's watch, remembers his well-known cantankerous side. House was of the mind that government functioned well when it stayed out of people's lives as much as possible, Bowman recalled this week.

"Rupert thought the least amount of government possible was the best government," he said.

Bowman can recall one moment in particular that exemplified how House thought government should work. Sometime in the early 1990s, House took it upon himself to go out and change the speed limit signs along East Fork Road from 35 to 45 miles per hour "without consulting anybody," he said.

Not surprisingly, the county had to turn around and return the speed limit to its previous level, he said.

Bowman said he and the rest of the County Commission would occasionally hear from House.

"He was always objecting to what we were doing," he said. "He wanted to let us know that we were intruding in people's lives."

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