Former Idaho State Senator Mary Lou Reed Reflects on Life in Public Service

Idaho Senator Mary Lou Reed


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The first thing one notices is Senator Mary Lou Reed’s smile. At 88, the former Idaho six-term state senator has outlasted nay-sayers who decried her presence in Gem State politics with a quintessentially optimistic attitude built on a life of public service that continues to this day.

Whether it’s advocating for early education through Head Start, contributing to the Pacific Northwest Inlander’s monthly political column, or supporting human rights—she helped create Coeur d’Alene’s Human Rights Education Institute when white supremacists were still grabbing headlines—Reed has remained a positive force in north Idaho.

“I like to always have some kind of challenge,” said Reed, who began her political career stumping for others, including four-time Idaho governor, Cecil Andrus, and being involved in local issues.

Local Land Use Planning Act

She helped promote passage of the Local Land Use Planning Act in 1975, which guided cities and counties in establishing appropriate zoning that balanced public and private interests. She also co-founded the Idaho Conservation League with husband, and environmental lawyer, Scott Reed.

In  1984, Reed was elected to represent District 4 in the state senate, a position she’d hold for 12 years. Although Reed wasn’t the first female state senator—that honor belonged to Hattie Derr in 1937—the legislators, all men, seemed flummoxed that first day in the Capitol, recalled Reed.

She attributed it to her newfangled electronic device—a Radio Shack computer —although, she said it may have been the pants she was wearing.

Reed smiles as she tells this familiar story, which was included in Public Broadcasting System’s 2013 video about her career, “Forces of Nature.”

“I think I was an effective legislator, but not mean,” said Reed, whose signature issues were the environment, particularly water quality, and classroom size, early education, and funding school buildings.

Love of Campaigning

Reed loved campaigning, she said, because she could meet and listen to people.

In 1992, for example, she went door-to-door in the Silver Valley, talking with people impacted by lost jobs, especially when the mines closed.

“I like people,” said Reed, who lives downtown Coeur d’Alene in a residential high-rise across from the lake that initially drew Reed and her late-husband, Scott, to the area. The building overlooks McEuen Park and neighboring 165-acre Tubbs Hill, prime waterfront the Reeds helped preserve from development in the 70s.

Setting Roots

Reed and her late husband, Scott, were a lifelong team, meeting in grade school in Klamath Falls, Ore. In 1956, the newlyweds traveled throughout Montana, Washington, and Idaho before settling on Coeur d’Alene. Back then Coeur d’Alene’s waterfront was still industrial, hardly the worldwide tourist destination it is today. They rented a rowboat —a rare thing, said Reed—and sojourned across the lake.

“And the water was just as delicious then as it is now,” she said smiling, yet wistful.

The Reeds built a home close to the lake, on a wooded hillside where they lived for 60 years, raising two children: Bruce, now a Princeton graduate and Rhodes Scholar active in national politics, and Dr. Tara Reed Wollpy, an accomplished author and professor of aquatic sciences at the University of Wisconsin.

If there is any credit due to her and Scott’s parenting, said Reed, it’s in ensuring her children understood that ideas are important.

Instilling the Importance of Ideas

Reed learned that lesson early on. Her father worked for Oregon Agricultural College —it became Oregon State University—served in World War II and became a veteran’s service officer. Her mother was a kindergarten teacher, so Reed tagged along well before starting public school officially.

“I was always able to be kind of outstanding because I had that extra push,” said Reed, whose desire to serve also came early. She ran for librarian’s office in fourth grade and was elected student body president in seventh grade.

Curious to understand others and drawn to the creative spirit, Reed majored in religion, sociology, and philosophy, minoring in art history at Mills College in Oakland Calif. As a graduate student at Columbia University, Reed studied history of religions.

“I had the gift of a very broad education and was always appreciative of how fortunate I was.”

Keeping Busy in Retirement

Although no longer active in state-level politics, Reed’s calendar is still plenty full. She’s a frequent face at arts events, occasionally mentors future leaders, and has recently discovered a love of opera.

“Music offers so much at every stage of life,” said Reed, who tries to live by simple principles, staying optimistic and hopeful, being involved in community, caring about others, and having a sense of purpose.

“I think that’s when people give up: when they don’t think they matter.” ISI

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