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Bombastic, in a good way

Chick Bilyeu

Chick Bilyeu/Idaho State University

Some descriptive words go negative over time. “Bombastic” – you typically associate that, especially when linked to someone involved in politics, with self-importance, arrogance, self-righteousness, humorlessness . . .

But that’s where you have to be careful, because you could fairly, sort of, describe as “bombastic” the style employed by Charles E. “Chick” Bilyeu, and yet none of those associated descriptors came close to fitting him. His oratory in the state Senate or on the stump often went beyond “hearty,” sometimes approaching full roar. But it wasn’t expression of ego, or affectation, either; it was a carefully crafted device, a tool he used for bringing the particular kind of attention he wanted to the points he was trying to make.

Bilyeu, who turned 90 not long ago, died Tuesday, was one of the beloved figures of Pocatello-area politics, and had been for half a century. A Democrat, he came up in the era when politicians knew which side they were on, and knew who the opposition was, but also knew enough not to turn either into saints or demons. Bilyeu was a politician partly because of interest in public affairs but also because he simply liked people.

It might not have been quite that way. He could have been more defensive or closed in (or less likable); he was an academic (speech and drama at Idaho State University) with background in national television work, who lost a string of races in the 60s, after which wife Diane tried running the state Senate in 1968 and won. She didn’t run in 1970 and he (using many of the same elect-Bilyeu signs) replaced her that year. The following years Republican leaders informed him that, nothing personal, he’d be losing his Senate seat in the upcoming reapportionment, the districts were being re-carved in such a way he’d never survive. But when Bilyeu eventually did lose his Senate seat to a Republican, it happened a couple of decades later, in 1994. His constituents seemed to like him too.

He took politics and his Senate work seriously (many of those years he spent on the budget committee), but what sticks in memory is sheer enjoyment he seemed to take in the people and the work around him. The combination was important, because while Bilyeu was a well-trained orator, he was not one of the Senate’s most frequent speakers; when he set his talents to a subject, serious purpose lay behind it. He was a fine comic speaker when he chose, and capable of evoking the drama of an important situation just as well.

(He was also a speech instructor to a couple of generations of Idaho Democratic politicians, though the style seemed to wear best on Bilyeu himself.)

Back in the 50s, as a young instructor at the Pocatello college, Bilyeu took a liking to one of his young female students, and a romantic relationship ensued. We have some dark phrases to cover that sort of thing nowadays, too. But that’s where you have to pause, again, and remember that we’re talking here about a different world. Chick and Diane Bilyeu soon married and were still married on the day he died, somewhere around a half-century later, the year after she had made her return to the Idaho Senate.

Condolences to the Bilyeu family, and to eastern Idaho’s political world. But the memories will be there in bold, dramatic strokes – Chick saw to that.

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