His name was Gideon Oppenheimer. Pudgy with thinning hair, he looked incongruous in his white Jaguar XKE called the rocket. From 1960 to 1969 he pursued Idaho’s best and brightest high school graduates as assiduously as Alabama Coach Nick Saban would pursue a top prospect.. He wanted Idaho’s student cream to attend his beloved alma mater, Columbia University.
Wealthy and single, he enjoyed publishing a Meridian newspaper and practicing law. He cultivated Idaho high school counselors, obtained SAT scores, and roared off in the rocket to anywhere he could identify a potential recruit.
Oppenheimer would passionately pitch Columbia. Cultured and sophisticated, he loved books, music, fine cuisine and duplicate bridge. And his adopted state, though he often decried its politics.
In 1969, though only 49, he died of heart failure. By then he had recruited over 60 of Idaho’s best. While he never was pushy about it, he sent each off with encouragement to return and contribute to Idaho’s future.
Those who did more than delivered. Among the Idaho/Columbia recruits were Joe and Ward Parkinson, the founders of Micron; Larry Grant, Micron’s corporate counsel; the late John Tait, a super lawyer in Lewiston; Dale Goble, University of Idaho Schimke Distinguished Professor of Law; Mike Mikesell, founder of Boise’s Guido’s Pizza; Jeff Fereday, an outstanding natural resources lawyer; Ralph Comstock, Jr., an international export businessman; and Pat Ford, an executive director of the Idaho Conservation League before focusing his attention on saving the northwest’s salmon runs.
The one, however, who has had the most beneficial long-term impact on the lives of all Idahoans was Conley Ward, Vallivue High School Class of 1965, who died last week at age 66 in his home at Kuna of acute leukemia.
Quarterback of his football team because he was an accurate passer, good friend Mikesell fondly recalled, “He was the slowest quarterback I ever saw.”
Ward was one of those rare people one never forgets. He had an aura of competence, intelligence, candor and self-deprecating humor. There wasn’t a pretentious bone in his body. He embodied integrity. One knew instinctively he knew what he was talking about.
When he bit into a subject, he sank his teeth. Whether it was fly fishing, golf, a favorite author, Northwest energy policy, the telecommunications business, or the arcane minutiae of utility rates, he read everything he could get his hands on and mastered it as few can. At age 29 he became the nation’s youngest public utility commissioner.
During his 11 year stint he demonstrated that conservation often is the least-cost energy resource. Additionally, he put in place programs to help the poor and disadvantaged afford basic heat and light.
Where he did the most for Idaho, however, was earlier as a young PUC staff attorney. Long-time friend Pat Ford points out that as no one else could, Ward first presented the proof in the agency hearing and then drafted the PUC opinion rejecting Idaho Power’s application to build the Pioneer coal-burning power plant near Boise.
According to Fereday, “He saved utility customers from huge rate increases and the Boise Valley from degraded air quality. With the no-go order Idaho Power avoided financing a hugely expensive plant at a time when the region’s electrical demand was slowing dramatically, just as Conley had predicted.”
Ford says Ward’s special genius was in moving the PUC process up to the level of economic sophistication people deserved in the face of the monumental proposal.
“Ward learned and applied solid economic facts, from investment credit ratings to price elasticity to the cost of externalities, and at the same time recognized the popular will as expressed in citizen referenda opposing the plant. Ward provided the legal basis by which Governor Andrus could articulate his own opposition to the application. That sealed the plant’s fate,” Ford stated.
Of all the Idahoans Gideon recruited, Ward was the best prospect for one day serving as governor. He would have been a young Cecil Andrus. He took an initial step in 1988 by serving as State Democratic chair.
He deliberately eschewed taking the next step, recognizing his own high ethical standards might be compromised by the process and realizing he might not have the temperament to put up with all the folderol.Columbia freshmen read Aristotle, who enjoined one to “know thyself.” Ward knew himself well, and without running for public office managed to serve Idaho well as few ever will.
Most Idahoans will never know what a great friend we have lost. Those privileged enough to know will mourn his death a long time.
My deepest sympathy to his wife of 42 years, Gail, their sons Ian and Tyler, his brothers Dudley, Cotton and Clay, his mother, Eloise and his sister, State Rep. Janie Ward-Engelking.
(Editor’s Note: Chris Carlson, though a native of Kellogg and a graduate of Columbia in 1968, was the one Idahoan at Columbia in the 1960’s that escaped the net of Gideon Oppenheimer due to the fact that Carlson graduated from Spokane’s Central Valley High School. In 1972 at age 25 Carlson returned to Idaho as press secretary to Governor Cecil Andrus.)Share on Facebook