The oldest member of the Legislature calls it quits at 91

Rep. Frank Henderson walked away from the Capitol Thursday – albeit with a cane – having never lost an election.

The former Post Falls mayor, ex-Kootenai County commissioner and current five-term Republican representative is moving on to his motor home, fly rod and remote-controlled model airplanes.

“I’ve got all this stuff I haven’t had time for,” Henderson said from behind his tidy Statehouse desk. “Now, I will.”

Lawmakers best know Henderson for promoting economic development during his years as the vice chairman and chairman of the House Business Committee.

The youngest representative, 32-year-old Caldwell Republican Brandon Hixon, said he’s learned from serving on Henderson’s committee. “He understands the issues more than a lot of people do,” Hixon said. “Especially in a case like mine, he’s had 60 more years of life experience. It’s that simple.”

Henderson grew up in Chicago and spent several years after high school in the Army during World War II. He was discharged with injuries, though he did not see combat. He worked for six years covering labor strikes as a reporter for the Chicago Herald American, then spent nearly 35 years marketing pharmaceuticals. In 1976 he moved to Idaho, where he bought the weekly Post Falls Tribune.

He ran for mayor in 1980 and won with 420 votes, nearly 300 more than the runner-up, according to the city clerk’s office. He left the mayor’s seat after being elected to the Kootenai County Commission, where he served eight years. He spent a decade consulting with businesses in eastern Europe and Russia, and then he returned home, where he won his House seat in 2004.

Henderson earned a reputation among colleagues for being approachable. Goedde called him “a consensus builder.” Nampa Republican Rick Youngblood, another Business Committee member, said Henderson went out of his way to include rookie representatives.

“(Henderson) was always open, was a good listener, was never rude and was always willing to make you look good,” Youngblood said.

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, said Henderson has been good to work with. “He’s a level-headed guy. Reasonable,” Moyle said.

Henderson said he has shrunk 2 inches to 5 feet 5 inches over the years but is in good health. He was forced to give up playing tennis twice a week (his wife, Betty Ann, used to beat him) after a quadruple bypass surgery five years ago. His feet are slower these days after he broke his hip, an injury that caused him to miss the first three weeks of this session.

“My mind is fine,” he said. “I still get ideas and get excited and enthusiastic. It takes imagination and energy. In fact, let me show you something…”

Henderson picked up two information packets on his desk for his latest business development project in northern Idaho. They were about airplanes and community colleges.

In 2012, he sponsored a bill that helped Idaho aeronautics companies expand by eliminating the state’s sales tax on aircraft parts. Most neighboring states already had exemptions, giving them an advantage on Idaho companies. Henderson worked for three years before he could get the bill read in the Senate Commerce and Human Resources Committee.

The bill is his favorite piece of legislation. Today, he’s helping the aeronautics companies form a consortium so that they can better approach Boeing Co. as potential subcontractors.

With the help of Henderson and others, North Idaho College in Hayden received a $3 million grant to open its Aerospace Center of Excellence. The college expects its new program, which will focus on manufacturing composite parts, to produce students who will fill jobs in the aerospace industry.

Sen. John Goedde, a Republican from nearby Coeur d’Alene, said his political career started when Henderson asked him to run for a GOP precinct chairmanship in the early 1980s. Henderson was a commissioner at the time. Goedde now chairs the Senate Education Committee.

Goedde said he and Henderson worked together to support legislation on issues important to northern Idaho, including water rights. Their relationship helped each to rally support in the opposite chambers, Goedde said.

“The public process has become a part of his life,” Goedde said. “It’s ingrained in him. My fear is, when he does hang up his spurs, that he’ll lose part of his enjoyment of life.”

Henderson said he will remain active. Leaving the Legislature will allow him more time to spend with his wife, who is in her second term as councilwoman on the Post Falls City Council. He’ll also have more time to visit with his five children and their families. And he’ll help the aeronautics efforts.

“I’m not going to sit at home and do nothing,” Henderson said.

Henderson said he’ll miss the Statehouse community, including lawmakers on both sides of issues.

“I learned to respect the system of governance that we have,” Henderson said. “It can seem to be muscle-bound and hard to make go forward. But that’s part of the test that ideas are put to in our legislative process. It weeds out bad ideas and it strengthens good ones.”

Zach Kyle: 377-6464, @IDS_zachkyle

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