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Former MT First Lady remembered for fostering political cooperation

Former Montana First Lady Betty Babcock died this past Sunday in Helena at age 91.

The wife of former Republican Gov. Tim Babcock was known for pushing hard for passage of the 1972 Montana Constitution, a renovation of the state capitol building and other issues.

Montana Republican Party Chairman Will Deschamps described her as an immeasurably kind woman who wouldn’t say an ill word about anyone.

"I remember a time when my wife walked up and said what a lovely broach that is, where can I find one and she said right here and just handed it to her. That's the type of person that she was," Deschamps said.

Born Betty Lee, she met Tim Babcock in high school.

They married in 1941 and she worked in a Glendive ration office while he fought in Europe in World War II.

Tim Babcock was elected to the Lieutenant Governor’s office in 1960 after serving as a Republican State Legislator. He took over as Governor in 1962 after then-Gov.Donald Nutter died in a plane crash and served in that role until 1969, with Betty by his side as First Lady.

Afterward, she served as a Republican delegate to the 1972 Montana Constitutional Convention. Longtime state politics reporter with Lee Newspapers Chuck Johnson said she served an important role.

“I think Betty particularly,” Johnson said, “because the convention was dominated by Democrats, a big Democratic majority. But, Betty Babcock, unlike some Republicans in the convention, went out and was a strong advocate for its passage.”

Johnson said Babcock donated an office in Helena’s Colonial Inn, then owned by her and her husband. That served as home base for get out the vote efforts on ratification of the constitution.

“It squeaked by by about 2500 votes and I think Betty’s role was very significant,” Johnson said.

Later in life, she volunteered her time to raise money for causes she believed in, such as a major restoration of the state capitol building in the 1990s or construction of a new Montana Historical Society museum building, which has yet to come to fruition.

Babcock was a committed Republican, but some of the big projects she championed were outside the party.

“She really reached across party lines,” Johnson said. “She was a beloved figure on both sides of the aisle."

Deschamps said the state needs more people in public service like Betty Babcock, people willing to bridge political gaps.

"She made up her mind that things would be a benefit for the state, and, or the party and she convinced people that it was so and that will be missed," he said.

She went to the 1984 Republican National Convention as a Montana delegate for Ronald Reagan. Serving alongside her was a 21 year-old Montana State University student named Steve Daines. Daines is now Montana’s US Congressman.

“I’ve always looked up to Betty Babcock as an example of the kind of people that we want to see in Montana leading and serving our state,” Daines said. “She is gracious, she understands that public service is about serving the people—it’s not about the people serving the government.”

Daines said her kind heart extended to all Montanans—regardless of party.

The Montana state website has a history of the passage of the 1972 constitution.

In it, Betty Babcock said cooperation was key to that document’s success.

“We didn’t fight each other,” she said. “We didn’t always agree, but we did work together.”

Governor Steve Bullock’s office has announced Betty Babcock will lie in state in the Capitol building’s Rotunda this Thursday from 7 AM to 2 PM.

The Public is invited to attend.

Flags across the state will also be flown at half-mast on Thursday.

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