By THE IDAHO STATESMAN
Bethine Church, the widow of four-term Idaho Sen. Frank Church and the grand dame of Idaho Democrats, died Saturday, her son said.
In a Facebook post, Chase Church said Bethine Church died “from old age,” and had spent her past two weeks at home on hospice care. She was 90.
Bethine Church was the daughter of Chase Clark, an Idaho governor in the 1940s. She grew up in Mackay and Idaho Falls. Frank Church grew up in Boise. They married in 1947.
Sen. Church was the most influential Idaho politician ever. Bethine was his partner in his public career. He served 24 years in the U.S. Senate, the lone Idaho Democrat to win more than one term. He chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In 1976, he was a serious candidate for president, looking briefly like the only man able to deny Jimmy Carter the Democratic nomination. He helped pass the Wilderness Act in 1964. He was an early critic of the Vietnam War, and investigated CIA and FBI abuses, forcing reforms that some now question in the post-9/11 era.
Bethine Church had a knack for remembering names, something she learned from her dad.
Sen. Church died in 1984. Bethine contemplated suicide while watching him die of cancer, she told the Statesman in 2006, but Frank Church told her she had responsibilities.
She went on to found the Sawtooth Society, which led private conservation efforts in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area; she supported expanding wilderness into the Boulder and White Cloud mountains; and she helped create the Frank Church Institute at BSU that supports a scholar and hosts a world-class annual conference.
Bethine Church had a knack for remembering names, something she learned from her dad, she told the Statesman. “Pop taught me that everybody, from the waitress to the people working in the kitchen, is as important as the people sitting on the dais.”
For Church, praise from colleagues
From Franklin D. Roosevelt to Barack Obama, Bethine Church’s sunny but dogged personality left an indelible mark on Idaho politics.
She helped elect her father, Chase Clark, governor in 1940 as FDR won his third term. Last year, had Idaho favored a Democrat, she would have cast one of four votes in the Electoral College for the president.
“That’s a big sweep of history,” said Rod Gramer, who co-wrote the 1994 biography of her husband, the late Sen. Frank Church. “And she wasn’t just a spectator. She lived it.”
An uncle, Barzilla Clark, also was governor; a cousin, D. Worth Clark, a U.S. senator. Her husband was the only Idaho Democrat ever re-elected to the Senate, serving from 1957 to 1981. “Her family was the Kennedys or the Bushes of Idaho politics,” Gramer said.
Her walls were crowded with intimate photos of the Churches with the famed and powerful: Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Carter; first ladies Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon and Barbara Bush; Juan Carlos of Spain, Golda Meier of Israel and Fidel Castro of Cuba; Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Jimmy Durante and John Wayne; and masters of the Senate including J. William Fulbright, Jacob Javits, Richard Lugar and Mike Mansfield.
Her death late Saturday at age 90 in her own bed in her southeast Boise home prompted tributes Sunday from across the spectrum. GOP Gov. Butch Otter said Church was “a great ambassador” for Idaho “whose life exemplified civic virtue.” Former Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus hailed her work on conservation issues and called her “a force of nature.”
“Idaho has lost a great friend and advocate,” said Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo. “Bethine had a way to mix civility with politics that is too often forgotten on the national scene. I will miss her input and charm, and I join with all Idahoans in mourning the passing of this Idaho legend.”