The English poet John Donne (1572-1631) famously wrote “No man is an island…any man’s death diminishes me….” I’ve been thinking about that since getting the sad news, just before Christmas, that a beloved mentor, Bethine Church, had passed away. Few in Falls Church probably ever heard of Bethine, but she was very well-known in her home state of Idaho, and in Washington, D.C. during the 30-plus years she lived here.
Bethine was the only child of Idaho governor Chase Clark and his wife Jean. Bethine liked to relate that her first political foray was when she urged neighbors to “boat” for her daddy as mayor of Idaho Falls. The Clarks moved to Boise when Chase was elected Governor in 1940, and that’s where Bethine met the high school orator who would become her husband, Frank Church. During World War II, before they were married, Bethine and Frank carried on a remarkable correspondence, handwritten letters that Bethine saved and are now part of the Frank and Bethine Church Collection at Boise State University (BSU).
By now, you probably have recognized that the young orator later became, at 32, a United States Senator from Idaho. He served four terms during the “golden” years of the Senate, when Democrats and Republicans worked together to address people issues, not partisan ones. Bethine became known as “Idaho’s third Senator” because of her political savvy, and remarkable memory for faces, names, children, and even the pets, of constituents and political acquaintances. Frank relied heavily on Bethine’s ability for analysis and advice, and many political biographers acknowledged that they were a great team.
In 1976, Frank announced his candidacy for the presidency, and defeated frontrunner Jimmy Carter in the Nebraska, Oregon, and Idaho primaries. It was a heady time, but Bethine brought everyone back to earth with her flippant remark to a reporter that she would not be a “size 6 First Lady.” Frank later became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but was defeated for re-election in Idaho in the Reagan landslide in 1980. I don’t think Bethine ever lamented a loss, except for losing her life’s companion to cancer in 1984. Bethine moved back to Idaho in 1989, and became the grande dame of Idaho politics for the next 25 years.
I had the good fortune to join the Church Senate staff in 1969. Frank and Bethine considered staff as members of their family, and we all felt the same about them. Indeed, at Bethine’s 90th birthday party in Boise last February, dozens of former staff traveled long distances to join the celebration. Bethine’s smile could light up a room, and her positive approach to life was infectious, but not Pollyannish. She would give motherly advice to the young people on staff, but never was judgmental. Her later accomplishments focused on international human rights, protecting Idaho’s unspoiled environment, and the Frank Church Institute at BSU. She was a fabulous role model, and her death from old age diminishes all who knew and loved her.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at [email protected]