Unless one attended the University of Idaho during the late 60’s or the 70’s and 80’s, chances are good they have never heard of Syd Duncombe.
Not one to toot his own horn, he was nonetheless one of the most beloved instructors on the campus. Several generations of future Idaho political leadership started to learn the craft in Duncombe’s political science courses.
A case can be made for putting him on the 100 Most Politically Influential Idahoans list. The list of Duncombe’s accolytes and fans is a virtual Who’s Who of Idaho political leadership: Dirk Kempthorne, a former governor, senator and Interior secretary; Larry Craig, former senator; Steve Symms, former member of Congress and senator; David Leroy, former attorney general and lieutenant governor; Robie Russell, former Region 10 EPA Director; Jim Risch, a former governor and current senator; and, Phil Reberger, a former Kempthorne chief of staff, to name just a few.
Duncombe was noted for keeping his students engaged by a facility to costume dress coupled with role playing. His lectures were often SRO. His enthusiasm for politics was infectious.
One of the paradoxes for Duncombe was almost all his students, especially those who later ran for office, became or were dyed-in-the-wool Republicans. Duncombe was a life-long Democrat and as recently as 2012, a daughter, Mary Ellen Haley, was defeated in a race for a legislative seat in Idaho Falls while running as a Democrat.
Duncombe, however, was not a hard partisan and worked in a very non-partisan way with governors and legislators on both sides of the aisle.
Duncombe was introduced to the then young State Senator Cecil D. Andrus from Clearwater County by Gordon Law, an instructor in the television/radio bureau (the forerunner of KAID-Television and the IPTV) at a reception on campus in the fall of 1965. Both Duncombe and his wife, Mary, became life-long Andrus supporters suffering through the double loss in the 1966 gubernatorial race and the comeback victory in 1970.
Shortly after his victory Andrus asked Duncombe, who had been a budget analyst for the state of Ohio before entering academia, to help him put together his first budget, a task which Duncombe took to with relish.
He did such a good job that Andrus offered him the post of State Budget director, but Duncombe, who had worked on a volunteer basis, declined not wanting to give up his tenured position at the University of Idaho. He remained a close friend and advisor to Andrus even after he retired from teaching in 1987 shortly after Andrus began his second stint as Idaho governor.
When not teaching Duncombe loved to backpack various wilderness parts of Idaho often leading family members into remote mountain lakes in the Sawtooths or the Big Horn Crags.
In his retirement, unbeknown to any but a few family members and close friends, Duncombe took up writing fiction with political machinations and mystery woven into fascinating plots. Using an old typewriter he pounded out several books that drew on his knowledge of politics as well as the role budget directors play in government.
The result was two fine reads, The Unlikely Candidate, the story of a retired budget director who runs for the Idaho State Senate as a way to expose budget shenanigans by a governor, and Freedom County, a murder mystery that is set in a county that is a cross between Lemhi and Custer counties that is taken over by the posse comitatus.
Duncombe’s third novel, Blizzard in August, is based on a true incident, a freakish late August blizzard that beset the Sawtooths in 1969 and caught many backpackers unprepared for such weather in late summer.
Anyone who has hiked the Sawtooths will recognize the settings and it also has a romance element including a sex scene that surely embarrassed Duncombe’s family.
All three of these books were self-published and never marketed, so only a few folks were aware of their existence. The books were rediscovered last year and the family was approached on republishing them with some marketing support. The family agreed with their share of sales proceeds being contributed to the Syd Duncombe scholarship in political science fund at the University of Idaho.
Randy Stapilus, a former Idaho newsman who has specialized in books on Idaho politics well as other things, his firm, through Ridenbaugh Press, agreed to republish the books with new forwards written by former students of Duncombe’s. The Communications Department at the university is assisting with some target marketing to Idaho alums.
Look for the books at a bookstore near you or go to RidenbaughPress.com for more information. The set of three makes a terrific Christmas gift for any one who loves politics and Idaho.