Remembering Pete Cenarrusa, Idaho’s longest serving politician

Credit: Boise State Albertson's Library

Remembering Pete Cenarrusa, Idaho’s longest serving politician


by KTVB and Associated Press


Posted on September 29, 2013 at 3:19 PM

Updated Monday, Sep 30 at 5:31 PM

BOISE -- Pete T. Cenarrusa, a Basque-American who held state office in Idaho uninterrupted for more than five decades, has died at the age of 95.

Cenarrusa died about noon on Sunday at his home in Boise after a battle with lung cancer, said Roy Eiguren, president of the Cenarrusa Foundation for Basque Culture. His wife of 66 years, Freda, was by his side.

Cenarrusa was elected to the Idaho House of Representatives in 1950 and served nine terms, including three terms as Speaker. Governor Don Samuelson appointed him Idaho Secretary of State in 1967.

He held that post for nearly 36 years, retiring in 2003 at age 85.

Current Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa began working for Cenarrusa in 1974. In 2002, he was passed the torch when Cenarrusa decided to retire.

In an interview at his home Sunday, Ysursa told KTVB that Cenarrusa had only two rules for the job.

“The golden rule still works in government and politics,” Ysursa said, “Treat people like you would want to be treated. And number two -- never forget who you work for.”

Cenarussa's life was full of adventure, working as a sheepherder and sheep foreman for several years before purchasing his own sheep business. He raised his family in Blaine County where his family of five learned English and kept their Basque heritage close.

He graduated from the University of Idaho in 1940 and became a teacher, but then enlisted in the United State Marine Corps in 1942. As a pilot, he trained to become a dive bomber in preparation for a possible invasion of Japan.

After retiring from the military, he flew on as a private pilot for 59 years without an accident.

His love for his family and heritage brought Cenarussa back to Idaho, where in 1950 he was elected into the Idaho House of Representatives and was selected as Speaker of the House.

Although Cenarrusa was seen many times speaking in public, Ysursa let us in on a little secret.

“He commented to me he would rather take a beating than give a speech and I said 'Pete, I would rather take a beating than listen to it,'” Ysursa laughed. “So we kind of had fun with that.”

Ysursa recalls one of the last times they were together.

“I was very fortunate to just recently take him out to lunch, him and my father who is a young 93, and listen to them talk and whatever it was a good time,” he said.

He was strong leader in the Basque community as well.

In 2004 The Cenarrusa Center for Basque Culture opened at Boise State University providing programs for students to learn the Basque language and history.

"Pete was the longest serving elected official in Idaho history and he also was the most loyal -- loyal to his constituents, his Basque heritage, his family, and everyone whose life he touched, including mine," said Mayor David Bieter in a statement. "I am proud to have worked with Pete to support Basque culture while in the Idaho legislature and to have been his friend. His passing is an enormous loss for Idaho. There will never be another Pete Cenarrusa. My heart goes out to his family."

Ysursa said his friend and mentor was a model public servant.

"He epitomized to me what public service was all about," said Ysursa. "He was respected and admired by all Idahoans for his integrity and his passionate devotion to making government more accessible and responsive."

Cenarrusa is survived by his wife, daughter-in-law Jean Cenarrusa-Jacobson and her husband Greg, two grandsons and two great grandchildren.

Monday morning Governor Otter released the following statement:

No one could have been a better or more passionate advocate for the Basque people, for fair and transparent elections, or for responsible stewardship of our public lands than Pete Cenarrusa. He was an Idaho original, and I was among many in state government - on both sides of the aisle - who benefited greatly from his advice, counsel and friendship. It's hard to imagine Idaho politics without Pete there. He loved the arena - encouraging public involvement, standing firm on his principles, gently nudging us all toward doing the right thing, and keeping us anchored in reality. Miss Lori and I send his tireless wife Freda and all Pete's family and friends our love, sympathy and prayers.

Idaho Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch released the following statement:

The state of Idaho lost a dear friend yesterday with the passing of Pete Cenarrusa.  Pete had a unique capacity to lead people and institutions with good will, great humor and wise counsel.  Pete was a personal friend and advisor to both of us and we will forever remember the example he set for all public servants.  Pete's long and dedicated service to the people of Idaho will last forever.  Our thoughts and prayers are with Freda, their family and all of Pete's friends.

Rep. Raúl Labrador released this statement:

I was saddened to hear of the passing of Pete Cenarrusa – one of the true gentlemen of Idaho politics.  When I served in the state legislature and after being elected to Congress, I always enjoyed talking with him and learning from him.  The longest-serving state official in Idaho history, Pete loved our state, and Idaho is better off because of his service.  He led a full and happy life, and he will be missed.  My thoughts and prayers are with his family.

Rep. Mike Simpson issued the following statement:

Pete Cenarrusa displayed a relentless commitment to working on behalf of Idahoans and we have a better state because of his leadership. Personally, I’m extremely thankful for the guidance I received from Pete over the years. Kathy and I send our heartfelt thoughts and prayers to Freda, their family and friends as we all mourn his passing. He will be sorely missed.

Thursday Cenarrusa will lie in state in the Capitol rotunda from noon until 7 p.m. then a vigil will be held Thursday at St. John's Cathedral beginning at 7:30 p.m. The funeral service will be Friday at 10 a.m. at St. John's Cathedral.