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Idaho speaker has deep roots

Pioneer legacy helps ground politician


Idaho Statesman

BOISE (AP) — When Scott Bedke looks out his kitchen window, he sees exactly where he came from.

Seven miles east of his brick home in Oakley is a grassy basin known for a time as "Bedke Springs," for Frank Carl Bedke, among the first settlers in 1878.

Steeped in history, Oakley has an opera house, Victorian homes and threads of Mormon history that include Mitt Romney's father, George, who spent part of his youth in the Cassia County farm town.

"There were other prominent founding families," said Marge Woodhouse, a volunteer at the Oakley Museum. "But the Bedkes stayed."

Three generations later, Bedke and his brother, Eric, run 1,300 cow-calf pairs on 130,000 acres of federal grazing allotments in Idaho and Nevada, an operation that is among the largest 2 percent in the United States.

"The Bedkes have been here the whole time," said Scott Bedke's wife of 32 years, Sarah, as the couple prepared breakfast together last month, shortly after he became Idaho's House speaker.

Bedke defeated three-term speaker Lawerence Denney in the 57-member Republican caucus, becoming the first speaker in memory to unseat an incumbent.

He credited his heritage and parental high expectations.

"There's a legacy of industry, of hard work, of just making it happen," Bedke said. "It's important to me that I'm in the fourth generation and that I don't do anything to wreck the good name.

"And there's a fifth generation, and a sixth. That's lasting. You want to do a good job and take pride in what you're doing."

Being speaker means more time away, but Bedke intends to stay grounded. "Sarah and I really enjoy our time in Boise, but you know every person here. There is no place like home," he said.

Leaving Prussia

Frank Carl Bedke left behind the family flour mill in Prussia in 1861, at age 15. A sailor for five years, he jumped ship to end his indentured servitude. He worked as a lumberman and miner across the West, until he saw the promise of selling produce to workers. After raising milk cows in Utah, he finally landed in Oakley in 1878.

Four years later, he married a woman half his age, Polly McIntosh; the couple had 13 children. They lived through drought, a winter that killed all but three of their cattle, cricket infestations and a shooting war between cattlemen and sheepmen.

They also endured social stigma. Polly was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; Frank wasn't.

"It was no small thing," said Bedke. "Although the word 'disowned' has been used, I don't know that that was the case. I think they got over it. I mean, how mad are you going to stay at the ne'er-do-well that your daughter brings home?"

Called Frank Carl by family, the patriarch expanded his holdings and was active in civic affairs, including education and music. His friends included famed lawyer and Gov. James Hawley, who represented "Diamondfield" Jack Davis in a range-war murder case.

"They were achievers," said Woodhouse, an amateur historian who said more than 80 percent of the 1,500 people now in the Oakley area are Mormon. "They were well thought of, even though they were not LDS."

Happy at home

Envy isn't tolerated by the Bedkes.

"My water's just as cold as John D. Rockefeller's," Bedke's grandfather, Ray Bedke, used to say.

The grandson thinks of that when he sips at the water cooler in his mudroom. "It sure does taste good in summertime. In anything that mattered, John D. Rockefeller didn't have anything more than Ray Bedke."

Speaker Bedke's father, "Ray C," felt the same way; he couldn't wait to get home after two years of stateside Army service during the Korean War.

"He was one of the original old-time cowboys," said Merv May, co-owner of the Burley Livestock Auction where the Bedkes sell many of their cattle. "He was a hard-working old boy."

The Bedke children were raised Mormon. Scott served a two-year mission in Italy, reads scholar James Talmage and teaches Sunday school to adults. But he speaks of his faith only when asked.

"I think it's best not practiced on your sleeve," he said.

All five kids were expected to go to college. Scott, 54, is the oldest and graduated from BYU with a degree in finance. Eric also graduated from BYU, in business management. Alex Bedke went to Utah State and works for the LDS Historical Society in Salt Lake City; the only girl, Leslie Barrowes, attended BYU but left to help her husband through grad school and raise a family; and Brice Bedke graduated from BYU and makes artificial joints in Indiana.

A sixth child, Derek, would be the oldest, but he died at 12 days. Scott and Sarah named the first of their four children Derek. All four are married, and the Bedkes have two grandchildren.

A ranch life

Ray C and his wife, Nedra, married in 1952. Ray C died in 1998 at age 67. Nedra, now 80, lives across the road from her oldest son in the brick house where she raised her kids. She's kept the ranch books for more than 50 years and still teaches 19 piano students.

She grew up in Logan, Utah, where her father was a building contractor. She insisted on testing the well at the summer place in Nevada, called the Winecup Ranch. "This city girl didn't trust drinking water from a well. It came out perfectly pure," she said.

Last year was the first time in 60 years she wasn't at the Winecup for haying season. Her children worked on the ranch, including summers at the Winecup and the Jew's Harp Ranch, across the Idaho line. They drew water, cut wood and lined up hay bales for the stacker. Nedra cooked in a coal stove in a 12-by-20-foot log cabin at Jew's Harp.

"It was better than a tent, that's about all you could say," Scott Bedke said while feeding cattle near the Jew's Harp cabin and reflecting on his mother's life as a farm wife. "I guess I'm saying it must have been true love."

Mom wouldn't have anything different.

"The secret in raising kids is that they know how to work and where the money comes from," Nedra Bedke said. "When they go off into their own lives, they still know how to work. I think that's why they're all successful."

Bedke might have been a better student had he not felt the tug of the ranch. He contrasts his experience with that of a soldier whose commander burns the ships upon landing in foreign territory.

"He could sail home if he wanted to," said Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, another fourth-generation rancher who sells bulls to Bedke for breeding.

"A lot of people don't fully appreciate where they came from in today's mobile, hectic lifestyle," said Brackett, who was a president of the Idaho Cattle Association, like Bedke. "It grounds you, furnishes core principles. Otherwise, it's easy to get whipsawed. If you have those core values, then people might not agree with you, but they'll respect you."

The 'idiot cowboy'

Bedke said he has three avocations: gardening, golf and the Legislature. He's also a wisecracker.

Asked about Gatorade, Pepsi or water for his guests on a daylong ranch tour, he tells his wife, "They can drink from the trough."

A trampled fence? "Cows just jump over the moon in nursery rhymes." Four dead cattle? "Dog food."

On his first day in the Legislature — he was appointed to fill a vacancy just before the opening of the 2001 session — Bedke's wit got the better of him. The last person to speak in the Education Committee, he'd grown weary of what he considered unwarranted trashing of the K-12 system that had produced him and most of his colleagues.

"So, I introduced myself as a 'survivor' of the public school system, in a smart-aleck way," Bedke recalled. "I was immediately stereotyped: 'Who is this idiot cowboy you've sent us?' "

The Idaho Education Association targeted him for defeat in 2002 and 2004, unsuccessfully. He's still torqued about the incident, which prompted a 20-minute soliloquy in the cab of his pickup.

"I am a lot of things, but anti-education is not one of them," Bedke said. "No one has led their life, or tried to influence the lives of their kids, in a more pro-education way than I have mine."

At the time, Bedke responded by making himself an expert on No Child Left Behind, tangling with the Bush administration over Idaho's tweaking of the law and leading the budget committee's move to split the K-12 budget into five parts.

One bad experience didn't blunt his humor. "It's what I call the Bedke twinkle," said former Speaker Bruce Newcomb, a close friend who's also from Cassia County. "He's one of the brightest guys around, very compassionate and complex. In the back of his mind, he's got a puzzle and he's trying to figure out the solution."