Bethine Church’s list of lifetime achievements were long and widespread. Often called Idaho’s “third senator,” Bethine Church personally knew John and Robert Kennedy, prepared dinners for a young Marlon Brando, went night scuba diving with Fidel Castro and was a staunch advocate for land preservation. Raised in the remote Sawtooth Wilderness on a homestead settled by her father, who would later become governor of Idaho and a federal judge, Bethine Church was a heavily influential fixture in state and national politics.
Bethine Church passed away in late December at the age of 90. Community members, friends and family gathered in the Simplot Ballroom in the SUB Saturday morning at 11 a.m. to remember a woman speakers called a “powerful force” and “earth mother.”
“Bethine loved politics. She was a Democrat and a self-described liberal-meaning generous, tolerant and progressive,” said Garry Wenske, executive director of the Frank Church Institute at Boise State.
Bethine Church married Idaho’s four-time U.S. senator Frank Church in 1947 after his service in WWII.
Democratic senator Frank Church was known for helping pass the 1957 Civil Rights Act and for his congressional hearings on illegal CIA and FBI intelligence gathering and covert operations.
“Had Bethine been born a generation later, she no doubt would have run for office herself,” Wenske said. “Instead, she became a full political partner to Frank.”
Senator Frank Church died of cancer in 1984 after 24 years of government service.
Former frank Church staffer Peter Fenn described the former senator’s relationship with his wife four years before his death.
“In the fall of 1980, during that last campaign, Bethine was in the kitchen at 109 West Idaho Street preparing a meal. I came into the living room and Frank was sitting quietly in a stiff-backed chair against the wall, pensive and sad,” Fenn said. “I asked him what was wrong thinking it had something to do with the campaign and he said, ‘Peter, who will take care of Bethine when I’m gone? She takes care of everybody else.’”
Audience members viewed a series of photos capturing Bethine Church’s extraordinary life in the public eye.
From laughing at a joke with Marlon Brando to standing stoically with her husband in the Oval Office next to Lyndon B. Johnson and later Jimmy Carter, Bethine Church actively participated in thirty years of American politics.
Bethine Church founded the Frank Church Institute at Boise State to promote active discussion regarding America’s foreign policy and she was awarded an honorary doctorate in 2009.
“When she returned to Idaho in 1989, she saw the need to continue the fight to save Idaho’s wild treasures by starting, with help from others, the Sawtooth Society,” said Church’s son Chase Church.
Chase Church explained how his mother’s efforts during the 1990s helped save tracts of the Sawtooth Recreation area from overdevelopment.
“I believe my mother is what you would call an alpha female,” Chase Church said.