Marissa McLain’s best memory of her grandmother, Betty McLain, goes something like this:
When she was about 7, she and her grandmother went to the Coeur d’Alene Public Library to pick out books, then to Rogers Ice Cream where they had “really big ice cream cones.”
When her grandmother noticed other people eating lunch, she said, “Oops,” the 16-year-old recalled, laughing, because they had skipped the meal and gone straight for dessert.
The story illustrates two passions for McLain, who died of cancer Tuesday at age 86. In McLain’s long and influential life, family and education were dominant.
McLain was third in a line of strong women who left an indelible impact on education in North Idaho. Her grandmother, Eva Beck Marshall, went door to door to collect donations in the 1930s to start what would become North Idaho College.
Her mother, Hazel Marshall Cardwell, was the first woman to serve on the college’s board of trustees.
Born and raised in Coeur d’Alene, McLain earned her bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Idaho and her master’s degree from Whitworth College, now Whitworth University.
She taught at Coeur d’Alene High School before moving on to teach business at NIC for 25 years.
She became the college’s business division chairwoman and dean of women and served 10 years on the board of trustees after retiring. In 1994, the college’s business and technology building was named McLain Hall.
She and Charles “Mac” McLain were married 61 years, and three of their four children became teachers.
The couple met at City Beach one day in 1947 when he invited her into his water taxi because he needed extra weight on one side.
The children joke about their mom being “ballast,” but when asked for the secret to a 61-year marriage, McLain said simply: “I let her be the boss.”
She spoke up with passion, honesty and integrity, friends and family said, whether she was demanding equal pay for female teachers in the Coeur d’Alene School District or protesting the firing of an NIC president in a letter to the editor.
Longtime friend and colleague Virginia Johnson remembers McLain leading the effort to develop the college’s first assessment of student learning in the early 1970s.
“Betty was the leader of the vision,” said Johnson, who retired from NIC last year after years as an English instructor and division chairwoman. “We really wanted the kids to do well. I felt like I was with a real forerunner in education.”
Daughter Sarah McLain, a counselor in the Coeur d’Alene School District, said that lesson was always clear when she was growing up.
“What we always knew is that we would get an education,” she said.
But education was not viewed merely as a means to an end. It was a path of self-discovery, a way to expose oneself to all that the world had to offer.
“What I learned from (McLain) is that you find what you’re passionate about and you do your best at it,” said Jim Curtiss, who is married to the McLains’ daughter, Susan.
Betty McLain did not reserve her energy entirely for education. She was active throughout the community, serving 14 years on Kootenai Hospital District’s board of trustees and on the governing boards of the Women’s Center, the Museum of North Idaho and the Coeur d’Alene Public Library, among other civic leadership positions.
She is survived by her husband, four children and four grandchildren.
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