BOISE — Bethine Church, matriarch of the Idaho Democratic Party and wife of the late U.S. Sen. Frank Church, has died. She was 90.
Her son, Chase Church, said she died at about 6:15 p.m. Saturday of old age after two weeks on home hospice, listening to Christmas music with he and his wife, Pam, by her side.
Bethine Church traveled the world with her husband, campaigning with him four times for senator and once for president in 1976. The daughter and niece of former Idaho governors, she was often called the “third Senator” from Idaho because of her active participation in public life during her husband’s tenure in the Senate.
“She always loved to entertain when I was growing up,” Chase Church said Sunday. “A lot of famous people came over to have dinner, movie stars or different politicians.”
She met every American president from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton.
“I was born to politics,” Church told The Times-News in 2003. “It’s part of me.”
Church became a widow in 1984 when her husband died of cancer at the age of 59.
She remained in politics, becoming the elder stateswoman of Idaho Democrats, and continued to work on those things most important to her. That included education, promoting home health care and preserving Idaho’s rivers and landscapes through the Sawtooth Society, the nonprofit organization she founded.
Church sat on the board of the Wilderness Society, founded the Frank Church Institute at Boise State University, which hosts yearly public policy conferences, and helped establish the Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial in Boise.
She only considered running for public office herself once, in 1986 for the U.S. Senate, but then bowed out when then-Gov. John Evans announced his bid.
“I’m better as a backup person, I think,” Church said.
In 2003, her autobiography, “A Lifelong Affair: My Passion for People and Politics,” was released.
Church told Idaho Public Radio she wanted to write the book for her grandchildren so they’d know more about her and her husband’s political adventures. A Democrat who compared her party’s struggle in Idaho to salmon swimming upstream, Church’s origins are found in the most Republican part of Idaho.
Born Jean Bethine Clark on Feb. 19, 1923, in Mackay, she grew up in Idaho Falls, where her father and grandfather were mayors. In high school, she met Frank, a champion orator who went to Stanford University but left after a year to join the Army. When he was discharged in 1946, she had graduated from the University of Michigan and was engaged to somebody else.
“When I told him I was having cold feet about Milt, he said ‘Then marry me,’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ It seemed so natural, like it was bound to happen,” Church said in a 2003 interview about her autobiography.
The couple had two children. She lost a son, the Rev. Forrest Church, to esophageal cancer in September 2009.
Church was awarded an honorary doctorate from Boise State University, where previous honorees include NASA astronaut and former Idaho elementary teacher Barbara Morgan.
Accepting her award at the age of 86, Church acknowledged she had trouble standing but said she never grew tired of discussing politics or reading about current events. She recounted growing up on a ranch on the Salmon River and in Boise, becoming a senator’s wife, meeting celebrities, dignitaries and one evening, cooking dinner while Marlon Brando played pool with her husband in the other room.
“I could not have imagined that I would travel the world and meet leaders like John F. Kennedy, Fidel Castro…” she said. “I only mention these because today you have so many opportunities that did not exist for a girl from Idaho in the 1940s.”
Former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus, the last Democrat to hold the office when his term ended in January 1995, said in a statement on Sunday that he and his wife, Carol, join thousands of other Idahoans mourning the passing of Church.
“She was a force of nature, a great political partner to Frank, and for almost 30 years after his death a keeper of his legacy, fighting the good fight for what both of them cared deeply about,” he said. “Bethine will be remembered for her own important work on conservation issues and as a great champion of Democratic candidates from the 1940s into the 21st Century. Idaho has lost one of its leading citizens.”
Bethine Church, an only child, is survived by her son Chase and his wife, Pam, six grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements and a memorial service are being planned.
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