Saturday, November 21, 2015

Remembering Teno

When Cynthia Lummis announced her retirement, my memory bank opened to days I worked for a Wyoming Congressman who, like Lummis, could have remained in the job forever, but chose to leave on his own terms.

I’ve been fortunate. Over my life, I’ve had many jobs, never one I didn’t love, each a little better than the last.

One of the most interesting was serving eight years on Congressman Teno Roncalio’s staff. During the week I would met with constituents who needed Teno’s help. But, the joy-of-the-job was those weekends when Teno came back to the state to stay in touch with the voters.

I was 22-years-old and my “heady” chore was to drive him around the state. Teno was one of the most fascinating and intriguing personalities in Wyoming. He grew up poor in Rock Springs, shining shoes to make a few bucks, which became a part of the legend. “Bootblack to banker.” He won a Silver Star in World War II and finished law school before establishing himself as a successful lawyer and banker. Teno ran successfully for the U.S. House in 1964, and unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1966, before returning to the House from 1970-1978. Teno was at the center of John Kennedy’s 1960 Presidential campaign and Bobby Kennedy’s in 1968. Nobody knew Wyoming better. Nobody knew more about politics.

We spent countless hours traveling from Cheyenne to Jackson or Evanston to Gillette, Rawlins to Sheridan and everywhere in between. Those delightful hours were spent listening to Teno telling stories of the land and its people.

How he loved Wyoming. One afternoon as we drove the endless miles from Cheyenne to Rock Springs, I mentioned how “ugly” some of the scenery was along I-80. I received a serious lecture about how important every acre was to the state and why it was beautiful in its way.

I got to hear Teno speak to many audiences. As Wyoming’s only Congressman, he was invited to speak not only to those who supported him but those who worked for his defeat every two years.  Most times it went well. Some times it didn’t.

In several communities, the local chamber of commerce usually gave him a hard time because of his backing of organized labor. During a luncheon with the Laramie Chamber of Commerce, he opened the floor to questions after giving a speech about the hope for peace following the 1978 Camp David accords.

The first questioner wanted to know why Teno voted to allow striking workers to receive food stamps. Teno slammed his notepad on the table and said, “I came to talk about the best hope for peace in the world for a generation and all you care about is why your congressman won’t vote to take the food out of the mouths of children because you can’t sit down with their daddies and negotiate a fair wage. With that, he was out the door.

He was a pilot with his own plane, which we took many times on trips across Wyoming. One cloudless summer afternoon, Teno said he needed a nap. He told me where to keep the needle on the indicator that gauged altitude and how to monitor the compass. That’s all the training I needed. He got a bit of shut-eye while I nervously flew the plane.

Roncalio represented Wyoming for ten years. He worked with Senators Cliff Hansen and Gale McGee, a bipartisan team, on many Wyoming projects. The most important was the hundreds of millions of dollars brought home with increased federal mineral royalties. Voters then thought it important to have a bipartisan delegation so that both sides of the aisle could be worked to Wyoming’s advantage. They were right.

One day, it was over. No press conference, no fanfare; just an off-the-cuff comment to a reporter at a UW football game in the fall of 1977. He would not run for reelection in 1978. His staff read about it in the next morning’s newspaper. That was Teno.

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