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Syd Duncombe and Ken Robison should be remembered for putting that Gem State spirit into words

Every Idahoan who cares about this state and how it came to be should read two relatively obscure books and be grateful the authors lived and worked here. Through their writings and teaching, these two left an indelible imprint on Idaho. And even though they labored in obscurity, the political cognoscenti in Idaho know them well. Any Idaho history is incomplete if it does not acknowledge their roles in shaping modern Idaho.

One book is a delightful novel, a murder mystery in fact, but chock-full of the author's knowledge of Idaho government, politics and public affairs. The other is a wonderful history of the major environmental issues that transformed and dominated much of Idaho's political debate for 50 years, from the late 1930s to the late 1980s.

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The novel, The Unlikely Candidate, is by the late Syd Duncombe, who for 27 years taught government and political science courses at the University of Idaho. He was an inspiring influence to an entire generation of Idaho's political leadership. Among those influenced directly by taking a class or indirectly by being drawn into out-of-class discussions prompted by his teachings were future U.S. senators and/or governors like Dirk Kempthorne, Jim Risch, Larry Craig and Steve Symms, and future attorney generals like David Leroy. Then there are the "behind-the-scenes" political practitioners also influenced by Duncombe's passion for politics, like Phil Reberger, Robie Russell, Marty Peterson and Roy Eiguren.

Many of his former students could recall how he brought politics to life by bringing different hats to class and then switching them, as he switched roles in the lessons he was bringing to life. His knowledge of politics was not just academic, either. Before coming to Idaho, he had worked in state government in New York and had even been superintendent of the budget in Ohio.

He cultivated political officeholders on both sides of the aisle. One of his great fans was Cecil Andrus, who made Duncombe his acting director of the budget office upon his first election as governor in 1970. Duncombe put together Andrus' first budget, and Andrus always acknowledged his debt to Syd for showing how a governor could truly shape policy if he understood how to put together a budget.

The novel's hero is — surprise! — a retired state budget director. Duncombe, however, wove into the text the kind of authentic details and knowledge that rings true with any who have been drawn into politics.

Syd had been working on the novel for several years. His beloved wife, Mary, died in 1997, but before she passed insisted that Syd finish the book, which he did in 1998. His passages on cancer are poignant, as his writing was obviously one way of dealing with his grief.

He died at the age of 78 in Idaho Falls in late September of 2004. His legacy should live on beyond the lifespan of the hearts that were directly touched by his zest for life and politics.

The second book, Defending Idaho's Natural History, is by former journalist and nine-term State Rep. Ken Robison. He was born in Nampa in 1936, received his B.A. from Idaho State in 1957 and began a 30-year career in journalism in 1959 as a copy editor at the Idaho Statesman. He was both a reporter and an editor for the Statesman, and from 1977 until his election to the Idaho Legislature in 1986 from Boise's 19th Legislative District, he was the editorial page editor.

When it came to handing out charisma, Ken missed the session. He always came across as thoughtful but calm, dispassionate and objective — the journalistic version of Joe Friday's "Just the facts, ma'am." To the surprise of many, however, he turned into an outstanding legislator, one who always did his homework. When he spoke, people listened.

He loved the legislature, so he was one of those bulldog campaigners — knocking on every door in his district every year. Not surprisingly, his diligence and hard work was rewarded by re-election eight times.

Robison brings this same diligence to his history of Idaho's major environmental battles. He recognizes the truth in the old expression that "success has a thousand fathers and mothers; failure is an orphan."

He knows, too, that it is "citizen-activists" who bring change about, and that some battles take decades. He does justice to the many key folks who put forth time, talent and treasure. His account of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering is fascinating, and he exhaustively documents his sources. From the battles to restore salmon and steelhead runs, to the fight to protect the White Clouds, Hells Canyon and the Sawtooths, to the creation of the Frank Church—River of No Return Wilderness and the Selway/Bitterroot Wilderness, it's all there.

Robison has done an invaluable service in documenting the fight and the fighters. Like Duncombe, he labored in relative obscurity, but all Idahoans owe them both a tremendous debt of thanks. ♦

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