Legendary Idaho lawmaker Kitty Gurnsey turning 85; send her a birthday card!

If you live in the Treasure Valley, you owe a debt of gratitude to Kitty Gurnsey, who was among Boise State University’s greatest advocates in the Legislature for two decades.

If you knew Kitty, my guess is you can recall her laugh or something clever she said to prompt you to pen a note. Even if you've never heard of her, she'd appreciate a birthday card, perhaps with a thank you for her role in BSU's success.

As co-chair of the budget committee from 1980-1996, her fingerprints are on BSU construction projects valued at more than $35 million: the Morrison Center, College of Technology, College of Engineering, Multi-Purpose Classroom Building and remodeling/renovations of the library, campus school, math/geology and administration buildings.

Her papers are archived at Boise State and include a copy of her floor speech in 1976 on behalf of a bill that finally made kindergarten an option in Idaho schools.

Gurnsey served 22 years in the House as a Republican, representing what is now the most reliable Democratic district in Idaho, District 19, in Boise's North and East ends. When she retired in 1996, Democratic Rep. Pat Bieter replaced her. No Republican has been elected in the district since.

I owe much to Gurnsey, who helped school me in the Legislature. Our relationship began with my first legislative session in 1987, when I attended every hearing of her Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. She helped me understand the reach of state government and what it takes to build consensus. I have fond memories of "approaching the bench" in the JFAC hearing room — formerly the Supreme Court — during breaks or at recess and learning the ways of the world from Gurnsey and three other legends, Sen. Atwell Parry and Reps. Mack Neibaur and Robert Geddes.

Gurnsey has a singular wit. When I attended the North Idaho Legislative Tour in 1990, I introduced her to the woman who later became my wife as “my friend.” Said Gurnsey: “It’s nice to have friends," emphasizing "nice" with a tone that made me blush.

The granddaughter of two Idaho lawmakers from Valley County, Republican Sen. Robert Halferty and GOP Rep. Frank Wallace, Gurnsey was part of a cadre of women lawmakers who broke barriers and held eight committee chairmanships when Gurnsey retired.

Now, Gurnsey has trouble remembering those days, says her sister, Bev Montgomery, who also served in the House. “She has older-age memory issues,” Montgomery said. “I tell her she just worked too long on those darn budgets. But she responds to the milk of human kindness.”

Gurnsey turns 85 on June 23 and her sister is soliciting birthday cards to mark the day. “She loves getting notes and cards,” Montgomery said. “At Christmas, she would ask me, ‘Now, who is this person?’”

The family will celebrate at a small event on June 9, with Gurnsey’s three children, five grandchildren and one great-grandson. Her husband, Vern, a vice president at Boise Cascade, died in 2006.

Send cards to Kitty Gurnsey at 2560 S. Teddy Ave., Meridian, ID 83642. "The cards can come any time," Montgomery said.

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