The following, for this ardent admirer, will always represent the kind of man Cecil Andrus was.
In January of 1990, the musical group of which I was a member was hired to play at the grand opening of the Boise Convention Center. If I can trust memory, it was, at the time, called “Centre (sic) on the Grove,” and its opening was a big deal, being nothing else like it in either Boise or Idaho.
Our group—the “Capitol City Jazz Band” for any who care—was only one of the musical ensembles contracted to play at this event, ranging from solo pianists in the remoter corners of the new building to Gibbie Hochstrasser’s “Kings of Swing” in the main ballroom.
Everybody who was anybody was there, along with a few thousand regular citizens who came out to be part this much-touted affair. One of the regular citizens—though a real somebody to me and my family—was my father-in-law from Florida. Antonio Rivero, of the Tampa Riveros. He had flown into Idaho in the dead of winter, and as an immigrant from the tropical climes of Venezuela, “winter” was perhaps his least favorite word. He came not to attend any grand openings or celebrate Boise’s first designated convention center, but to meet his newest grandchild. My daughter had made her arrival three months earlier, not at the airport, but in a St. Luke’s delivery room. Her Florida grandma had already come and gone, having grabbed a flight one day after Annie was born. But Tony, along with my wife’s sister, Helen, decided to wait until things had settled down some in the Cope household. It was merely coincidence he was here on the night of the grand opening of the Centre on the Grove.
But Tony and Auntie Helen were dancers. They both loved to doll up and cut a rug. So talking him into coming with me to the gala wasn’t hard, even though it meant venturing out into an icy night. At the event, he listened to our Dixieland music for a respectful interval, but when the first strains of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey came wafting out into the lobby in which we were playing, he pulled Helen into the ballroom.
During our next break, I followed him to check on how he was doing. I can’t say I wasn’t a tad worried for him, as he was a dark man in the whitest company he had ever, or would ever, find himself. Furthermore, his command of English was somewhat tenuous. (The vocabulary was there in greater abundance than most of the people I know who were raised in the language, but sometimes it came out a little tough to grasp.)
However, he was doing just fine. I don’t know how he’d made the friends he was talking to in such a short time, but from where I stood at the door, they all seemed to be enjoying their conversation as they stood in a knot on the dance floor, maybe sixty feet away, waiting for the next tune.
Closer to where I stood was another knot of attendees, and central to it was the unmistakable head and shoulders of Cecil Andrus, then serving his third term (out of four) as Idaho’s governor. I had met Mr. Andrus before, almost 20 years earlier during his first term. He had heard rumors of a rock festival, disguised as a benign church picnic, being organized in north Idaho that would eventually draw many thousands of counter-culture characters and young people to Sandpoint, and he raced to Moscow to interview one of the chief organizers about the preparations for the festival. Through the agency of pure serendipity, I was present at that interview. A fly on the wall as they say—not that Cecil would have remembered either the face or the name of that fly.
Still, as a Democratic functionary in later years who often attended political events where Andrus was present, I knew him to be a gregariously friendly and generous man, and I had an idea.
Tony would recognize the Governor, I knew that. During a previous trip to Tampa, he had kidded me, the son-in-law from the wilds of Idaho, about a ubiquitous television commercial that was airing there in Florida and, I guess, everywhere else, in which Mr. Andrus, as Idaho’s Governor, was extolling the virtues of Idaho potatoes from atop an enormous hill of … guess what … Idaho potatoes. It is likely that commercial made Andrus a more familiar face around the country than his extraordinary tenure as President Carter’s Secretary of the Interior. But my father-in-law—an alert and conscientious citizen, as naturalized citizens so often are—was fully aware of that earlier Interior Secretary post, and he’d also gotten a kick out of a state governor being so humble as to be filmed squatting on a 40-foot pile of spuds.
I approached Andrus, introduced myself and explained how my father-in-law was visiting from Florida, and how pleased he would be to meet our governor. Cece didn’t hesitate. “Let’s do it. Take me to him,” he said. He asked of Tony’s name on the way over. I swear, the only way to describe the look in his eyes was “mischievous twinkle.”
“Tony,” I answered as I guided him. “Antonio Rivero, and he loves your potato ad.”
From behind, I put my hand on my father-in-law’s shoulder, and as he turned, I said, “Tony, I’d like you to meet … “
Andrus didn’t let me finish. Grabbing Tony’s hand and clapping his back with the other, he could have been hosting an afternoon game show. “Cece Andrus, Tony,” he gushed, “and I’m darn glad you made it. We heard you were coming and now that you’re finally here, we can get this party kicked into high gear.”
I thought my father-in-law was going to cry, he was so delighted. Tony never forgot that moment, and I was never so proud, before or after, to be part of a community that would elect so gracious, kindly and playful a leader.
Much of what makes me so sad about his passing is how tragically Idaho has degenerated since the days of Cece Andrus.