BOISE - The man who served as Idaho's governor for more terms than any other turns 80 in August.
That's still not enough years for Cecil Andrus. He has more work to do. Two decades of it, he figures. And he wants his adversaries to know.
"I'm going to live to be 100," the former Democratic governor said recently. "So those people at (Idaho National Laboratory), the nuke waste situation, they're going to have to put up with me for another 20 years."
And who would doubt the former governor and Secretary of the Interior's ability to fulfill that pledge?
Andrus stormed his way from a boyhood home without indoor plumbing to four terms as Idaho governor and took on an influential position in President Jimmy Carter's cabinet. The former sawmill worker from Oregon remains uncommonly active for a person his age. He takes daily walks with his German Shorthair, Macy, and takes a day to fish and hunt whenever he gets the chance. His love of the outdoors shaped much of the conservation policies that helped make his mark in politics.
At an interview in his downtown Boise office, Andrus, known as "Cece" to legions of Idahoans, spoke for more than an hour about his youth and his life in politics. He scarcely scratched the surface of a career that spans decades and will leave behind stories that Idahoans tell for decades to come.
Andrus has decorated his fifth-floor workspace with pictures of mountain landscapes and high-profile national politicians from the 1960s and 1970s. One photo shows him with Jimmy Carter speaking from a lectern that carries the presidential seal. Andrus shows no signs of waning at 79, wearing a neat dress shirt and houndstooth check sport jacket.
"I've been a very fortunate fellow," Andrus said in summing up his life.
The Boise School District has honored Andrus with an elementary school in his name and he's the state's only governor elected to four terms. One historian calls Andrus one of the most important secretaries of interior in U.S. history. Not bad for a guy who once called his political career "mediocre."
"People give me a lot of credit, but I've had a lot of help," he said.
An unusual start in politics
Andrus's political career started with an insult.
Public office was the last thing on young Cecil Andrus' mind in 1960 when the lumberjack father from Orofino butted heads with a Republican state senator.
Andrus had concerns about rural public education getting less than a fair shake. And with a daughter entering school the issue hit home.
But veteran Republican state Sen. Leonard Cardiff had none of it.
"That school system was good enough for me. It's good enough for them," Andrus recounts Cardiff saying in Andrus' biography, "Cecil Andrus: Politics Western Style."
Some friends wanted Cece to run against Cardiff, but he wasn't interested.
That is at least not until the Republican Clearwater County chairman told Andrus that he would have lost big anyway. That remark sent Andrus straight to the county courthouse to enter the race, even though Andrus had to first put his shirt on (he was at work on a hot day) and he didn't even know what to do to get on the ballot.
The young laborer who had never even been to Boise won that election and began serving as a state senator at 29, the youngest person elected to that Idaho body.
"I'm a lumberjack and a political accident," Andrus says now. "That's the truth. That is not a flippant statement."
That first public election continued and started a distinct trend in the political life of Cecil Dale Andrus: winning elections. Andrus won several elections to high school offices with only one loss. And he ran for governor five times, winning four campaigns.
A political natural
What's behind Andrus' success at the ballot box? According to the Hood River, Ore., native's daughter, Tracy, Andrus has authenticity.
"My father genuinely likes people, and that comes through," Tracy Andrus, 55, of Eagle, said. "You watch him with people and he's listening because he's interested. People know when someone's genuine, and he's the real deal."
Former Meridian School Board member Wally Hedrick admits he's biased when talking about Andrus, who appointed Hedrick the first directory of the state lottery in 1989. Hedrick now works as the state director of Rural Development.
"I don't think there's been a better governor in the state of Idaho," Hedrick said. "He's a once-in-a-lifetime politician."
Andrus' ability to resolve differences sets him apart, Hedrick said.
"His ability to pull people together to try to find solutions to difficult problems makes him an exceptional individual," Hedrick said. "I come across people all the time that wish he'd run again."
Out of official public life since the mid 1990s, Andrus comes from a time when politics was perhaps less disagreeable than now. Although the former governor was and is a staunch conservationist, Idaho Rivers United Executive Director Bill Sedivy said his group has not always agreed with Andrus.
"(But) you could disagree on one issue and work together on another," Sedivy said. "And that's a trait that seems these days to become less and less prevalent."
When President Carter called on the Idaho Korean War veteran to act as secretary of the interior, there was no hesitation on Andrus's part, even though he was in the middle of his fourth term as governor.
"I come from the old school," Andrus said. "I was raised (that) when the president of the United States asks you to do something, you don't quibble. You say, ‘Yes, sir'."
Andrus left the governor's office to serve under Carter in 1977.
Andrus and political observers agree that the governor's focus in politics was on education and conservation, or environmental, issues.
Education issues prompted Andrus to run in the first place. And he considers the establishment of public kindergarten to be the top achievement of his four terms as governor.
The kindergarten policy came only after years of effort. Andrus said he had brought up public kindergarten to Idaho lawmakers several times without success. Opponents, he said, called kindergarten a "Communist plot" to take children out of the home. But once someone suggested that kindergarten be voluntary, the revised law made it through the Statehouse.
"Once you got it on a voluntary basis, it might as well have been mandatory," Andrus said.
In today's global economy education becomes even more important, Andrus said, and the best investment a community can make.
An avid outdoorsman, Andrus always understood the value of preserving open space and wilderness. When he first won election as governor, he campaigned on saving the White Cloud Mountains from a planned open-pit molybdenum mine.
One of his first acts as governor was to stop a mining company plan that would extract lead and zinc deposits near Craters of the Moon National Monument. In his biography Andrus explains that he blocked the proposal because the company did not want to use scrubbers to prevent air pollution.
National nuclear image
Andrus has been concerned about nuclear waste since 1971. In perhaps his most well-known, and most dramatic, act as governor Andrus blocked train delivery of nuclear waste to Idaho in 1988. The New York Times published a picture of an Idaho trooper standing next to his cruiser with arms folded blocking a railroad into the state.
"The Gem State is not a dump," Andrus writes in his biography.
To this day Andrus advocates for what he believes are important guidelines for disposing of nuclear waste at the Idaho National Laboratory near Idaho Falls. He said he supports the idea of INL, a nuclear research facility established in 1949, with caveats.
"The good news is the Department of Energy has found a place to store nuclear waste," Andrus wrote in a letter to Gov. Butch Otter in January. "The bad news is it's between Idaho Falls and Arco."
Another signature environmental move by Andrus came when he served as secretary of the interior and helped create the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980. The deal designated millions of acres as public land, much of it as wilderness area. Andrus worked to make sure the deal was done only weeks before President Ronald Reagan took office because he was convinced the Reagan Administration would not go as far in preserving land.
For that and other reasons, historian Douglas Brinkley told Idaho Public Television in December that Andrus ranks among the top three or four most important secretaries of interior in U.S. history.
His political adversaries may disagree, but Andrus' bark sometimes seems worse than his bite. He's a true people person who relates to presidents and plumbers the same way, those who know him well say. That easy way of interaction makes many people comfortable with dropping the formal title of governor. They just call him Cece.