If the “lion of Idaho” was William E. Borah, Idaho’s most famous United States Senator, a strong case can be made that the “lioness of Idaho” has to be the late Louise Shadduck. Others will argue that the title should be bestowed on Verda Barnes.
Or, if one believes that a prerequisite for such a designation is to have held public office then Gracie Pfost has to be a leading candidate.
Louise who? Verda who? Gracie who?
Therein lies the challenge. Only a few political junkies or academics know who these three talented women were, each of whom had a profound influence on Idaho’s political life. Each deserves a biography, yet thus far, only two are in the works.
The case for Louise is the strongest. She was the first female executive assistant to any Idaho governor, but in her case because it was Idaho’s first post-war progressive governor, Dr. C.A. Robins (from St. Maries), Louise, by Doc Robins’ own admission, had a profound influence on the many progressive initiatives he undertook.
She then worked for Doc Robins’ two immediate successors, Len B. Jordan, and Robert E. Smylie. Smylie made her director of the department of commerce which she transformed into the aggressive state marketing agency it is today. She held sway there for 10 years.
Louise also served as chief of staff to Senator Henry Dworshak, and later held down a similar position with Second District congressman Orval Hansen.
Though she never held a elected office she wielded considerable influence from other posts such as president of the National Federation of Newspaper Women (She was a trained journalist who worked for both the Coeur d’ Alene Press and The Spokesman Review), and as the first director of what became the Idaho Forestry Association.
The key to her influence was not just smarts, but an incredible memory for names, unfailing courtesy and the sole of discretion. She knew everyone who was anyone. She jammed into one life a half dozen careers and could have retired at several points but chose to stay active in Republican affairs and the state’s affairs, as well as her beloved Coeur d’Alene, until the day she died at 93 years young.
And she kept writing, a number of interesting books on subjects ranging from a history of doctors in Idaho, to the history of the Caldwell rodeo to a biography on Andy Little, a turn of the century sheep and cattle baron in Idaho.
What few people know, save University of Idaho Dean Katherine Aiken, is that Louise did seek public office in 1956, taking on First District Congresswoman Gracie Pfost. It was the first time in the history of the Republic that two women were the party nominees in a congressional race.
In a column I wrote for the Lewiston Tribune in September, 1972, Louise told me: “I have no regrets. I learned more from that brief time than any other comparable period in my life. It was a good, clean campaign. Most of all, we proved that two women could run a credible campaign against each other.”
If elected office is a requirement, then hands down the lioness has to be Ms. Pfost. A smart, tough, hardworking county officer (deputy clerk, auditor, treasurer), she parlayed her knowledge of government and people into being Idaho’s first female member of Congress. She served ten years from 1952 to 1962, giving up her seat to run in the special election held to fill the seat of Senator Henry Dworshak who died in office. She narrowly lost to former Governor Len B. Jordan, 51 percent to 49 percent.
Following her defeat she accepted a position with the Kennedy Administration working in the Federal Housing agency. Sadly, she died prematurely at age 59 in 1965 at John Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore and is buried in Meridian.
A third solid contender for lioness has to be Frank Church’s long-time administrative assistant, Verda Barnes. Born in Utah but raised in St. Anthony, many Idaho political wonks feel with all due deference to both the skills and talents of Frank and Bethine, nonetheless it was the political acumen and an unerring sense of Idaho that Verda possessed which was the key to Church being the only Democrat ever re-elected to the Senate, which happened three times.
It is no coincidence either that Verda had passed away before the senator’s loss to Steve Symms in 1980. Verda deserves a biographer for of the three she is the least known. Dean Aiken is working on Ms. Pfosts’s biography and Louise’ former Pastor, Mike Bullard, is working on hers.
If someone steps forward to do Verda’s then perhaps it will be easier to award the “lioness” title. Even then my money will still be on Louise.
Chris Carlson is a writer and former press secretary to Governor Cecil Andrus. He lives in Medimont.