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Bethine Church. photo by David N. Seelig

Idaho's Guardian:
Bethine Church

by Pat Murphy

With lushly leafy silver maple and elm trees lining the narrow residential street, and songbirds outnumbering autos, Boise’s North Walnut might well have been the setting for one of Norman Rockwell’s paintings of Averagetown, America.

Make no mistake, however, about the two-story gray wood-siding house at 480 North Walnut: sedate and quiet as it seems from outside, inside is a command center for the frenetic activities of a 78-year-old widow of inexhaustible energy whose tireless service to thousands has made her an icon, if not a legend.

Her name is no stranger anywhere in Idaho, and is familiar in many circles in Washington, D.C., or, for that matter, in memories of people who encountered her in dozens of countries around the world.

Bethine Church.

For those touched by her works, the name triggers an automatic image—a woman on the move with little time to waste, a woman whose diminutive height belies a large and generous heart and a fierce devotion to her causes.

photo courtesy Bethine ChurchSen. Jacob Javits (NY), Sen. Frank Church (ID), Bethine, Sen. Joseph Biden (DL), and Chairman Deng Xiao Peng in China.  Photo courtesy Bethine Church.

After the 1984 death of her prominent husband, U.S. Sen. Frank Forrester Church, who died of cancer at 59 years old, Bethine Church barely paused before embarking on what she considers her life’s responsibility – to use her experience, her contacts and her considerable political sway for the sort of good works she learned at the side of her husband of 36 years and as a child in the home of one of Idaho’s best known political families.

Politics and public service were naturals to Bethine Church. Her grandfather, Joseph Addison Clark, was the first mayor of Idaho Falls after its chartering. He also was a Greek scholar and engineer who helped design and build canals in Idaho Falls.

Her father, Chase Clark, was Idaho governor (1941-1942) and later a federal judge appointed in 1943 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
And her husband, once dubbed “the boy orator of the U.S. Senate,” achieved a level of political celebrity and controversy shared by few American public figures in the turbulent 1970s. 

Which explains Bethine’s lifestyle from her “headquarters” on North Walnut, a deliciously friendly, comfy setting in rooms filled with memorabilia and photos from her years with a powerful senator; where richly colorful throw pillows cover couches and chairs; where piles of the latest books on politics and politicians with autographs from their authors are stacked six high on the living room coffee table; where she whips up meals in a kitchen opening onto an airy and bright family room where guests and family gather to discuss issues; where a FAX machine whirs with coming and going messages; where her telephone is the lifeline to getting things done – a schedule she wisecracks is a “mess.”

photo courtesy Bethine ChurchSen. Frank Church, Maureen Mansfield, Bethine Church and Ambassador Mike Mansfield in Tokyo, Japan. Photo courtesy Bethine Church.

Little wonder her Christmas card list is up to 900 names.

The house also is a stopping place for the well-known. For example, former Vice President Al Gore’s daughter, Sarah, was a recent houseguest. 

A visitor taking in all the framed photos and certificates of achievement, eavesdropping on phone calls from groups she has founded or helps direct, and absorbing details of her daily schedule not only wonders how Bethine Church finds time, but asks the unavoidable question: how many will it take to fill the void if she’s not there when help is needed by so many?

She’s rightfully regarded as the matriarch to the Idaho Democratic Party, the tireless and upbeat fund-raiser and cheerleader for a party that’s as down and out in Idaho as the breakaway Republican mugwumps of 1884.

“We’ll come back, you watch,” she says with that perky smile and soft chuckle. Her style is that of the table-hopping hostess, gently eliciting favors from moneyed and influential guests as she greets them and moves on to others. 

Her neck-length dark hair always meticulously coiffed, Bethine’s tastes run to slacks when at home. 

Her memory is flawless: she rattles off the names of presidents of the 18 African countries she visited with Sen. Church during a fact-finding trip. When her son Chase, 44, an electronics entrepreneur, stops by the house, she gives directions to a specific file drawer for a paper he wants. 

photo courtesy Bethine Church

Frank, Prime Minister Golda Mier, Bethine. Photo courtesy Bethine Church.

She confesses to one flaw: clumsiness with numbers. She recalls being scolded by her husband that “you should campaign for me, but don’t use or quote figures—you drop or add zeroes.”

Her other son, the Rev. Frank Forrester Church IV, 53, is a New York City minister and editor and author of 11 books.

Even in the dark hours of her life, humor has had a place. She remembers a plot at Morris Hill Cemetery being selected for her husband during his last months by one of Sen. Church’s aides, George Klein, who tried to lighten the moment by saying it was near a restroom.

“Good,” the weak Church said, brightening to the moment. “More people will visit me.”

Two among all of Bethine Church’s activities have special visibility and importance: president and founder of the Sawtooth Society, an activist guardian and champion of the

756,000-acre Sawtooth National Recreation Area, and chairperson of Boise State University’s Frank Church Endowed Chair of Public Affairs, which attracts distinguished public figures to lecture on a theme topic. The November 2001 session on energy, “Lights Out in the American West: Oil, Gas and Conservation Under Stress,” was keynoted by Theodore Roosevelt IV and former chief of staff to President Clinton, Leon Panetta.

But it’s the Sawtooth Society that most closely resembles a continuation of Frank Church’s legacy spawned by the Wilderness Act and creation of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, and that has drawn so much of Bethine Church’s energy.

photo courtesy Bethine Church

Frank, Bethine, Ambassador Bengelloun of the Kingdom of Morocco and his wife Jacqueline. Photo courtesy Bethine Church.

As Sen. Church began working on the Wilderness Act, she remembers his passion. “If the country is turned into black top,” meaning asphalt roads and parking lots, Church told her that “there’ll be no place for people to go” to see the wonders of nature. 

To avoid any suspicion that he’d profit personally from creation of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Church sold a ranch he owned 19 miles south of Stanley.

Created in 1972 out of the Sawtooth National Forest, the SNRA is a spectacular collection of breathtaking scenic grandeur; 300 high mountain lakes; 50 peaks of more than 10,000 feet; headwaters of four major Idaho rivers (the Salmon, Payette, Boise and Big Wood), and enough recreation (fishing, hiking, climbing, horseback riding, hunting, biking, canoeing, kayaking, whitewater float boating, bird watching) to satisfy the outdoor tastes of more than a million annual visitors.

The SNRA arguably would be less than it is were it not for the 1,500-member Sawtooth Society. Executive Director Bob Hayes, a Republican whom Democrat Bethine Church was responsible for hiring, recalls that when Bethine formed the group in 1997, the SNRA was threatened with plans for subdivision development as well as deteriorating facilities for visitors.

“She (Bethine Church) figured the Forest Service could use some help,” Hayes remembers.

Indeed. Using charm, persistence, a refusal to take “No” for an answer and working the telephone, Bethine Church virtually single-handedly created the Sawtooth Society, which in the past four years has worked with Congress to appropriate some $9.8 million for land and water conservation and acquiring unique easements from private property owners on 2,500 acres inside the SNRA, the last remaining parcels out of 25,000 acres on which easements are beng obtained.

photo courtesy Bethine Church

Bethine and her late husband Sen. Frank Church in the late 1970s. Photo courtesy Bethine Church.

The society also has raised $150,000 to pay for new trails, campsites and for 1,000 miles of trail maintenance. 

Bethine’s tireless works earned this autographed tribute from historian and author Doris Goodwin Kearns on the inside of her new book, “No Ordinary Time”: “To Bethine, who carries forward the traditions of Franklin and Eleanor (Roosevelt).”

One might assume Bethine Church would begin to slow down, kick back and read the unread books and spend even more time with her six grandchildren.
Wrong. She has an explanation for why she presses on with projects.

“Many political wives are on stage, then when their husbands are elected, they fall off the stage.”

She remains on the stage while taking on two more projects.

First, an autobiography, whose theme will involve the men in her life, “enablers,” she calls them “and everything about them that made me”: her father and her husband.

Her childhood, she recalls, included talks with her father about social issues—the needs of children in poverty, about Franklin Roosevelt’s Depression years Works Progress Administration. They were not the customary father-daughter conversations. 

Her most important value to Sen. Church, she believes, is that “we talked over” all of his ideas and legislation that she said was “ahead of his time”—women’s rights, nature conservation, civil rights, needs of the elderly, halting the Vietnam War.

“Whenever we’d argue about an issue for months on end, he’d then say, ‘Now I’m ready to take on all comers.’”

Still on her agenda is more work rebuilding the Democratic Party.

“I’m a terrific optimist,” Bethine insists. “We have to start at the grass roots.”

And one sign that average voters are in the mood for change, she says, “even moderate Republicans are feeling disenfranchised these days.”


Sen. Frank Church

by Pat Murphy

Although controversy dogged the late Frank Church during his celebrated 24-year career in the U.S. Senate, he retained a flawless reputation for honesty and integrity even with his critics.

“His word was bond,” remembers his widow, Bethine Church. 

Politics was his life. He didn’t play poker with colleagues at night after Senate duties, but instead came home to thrash out his views with his wife on pending legislation and policies.

Born into a family of Republicans, Church became a Democrat after debating politics with his father and convincing himself to break the family tradition, according to his wife, whom he married in 1948.

Church’s name is linked with three major landmark Senate activities.

First, he managed passage of the far-reaching 1964 Wilderness Act. As a tribute a year before Church’s death in 1984, 2.3 million acres of Idaho wilderness were named the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. 

Second, he championed the Panama Canal Treaty that returned the canal to Panama. This, said Bethine Church, was “the nail in Frank’s (political) coffin” that ended his Senate career. Critics vilified him as a “communist,” even though the treaty was supported by the likes of actor John Wayne and approved by the Senate. 

Third, he chaired a Senate investigation of the Central Intelligence Agency, then under criticism for “black bag” operations that included assassinations. Committee findings led to CIA reforms, which recently have been debated pro and con as the cause of alleged failures to detect terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington.

Although known as a champion of preserving open space, Church also achieved prominence as an expert in international affairs.

He became a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976, but bowed out and supported Jimmy Carter.

Defeated for re-election in 1980, Church joined a Washington law firm.

A native of Boise, Church succumbed to cancer in 1984 at 59 before he could complete writing a book about how the making of America influences U.S. policies.

He’s buried in Morris Hill Cemetery in Boise.


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