GREAT FALLS, Mont. — Montana citizens got together in 1972 to try to write a new constitution for the state.
It wasn’t going to be easy.
Among them, from Great Falls, were automobile dealer Don Rebal; schoolteacher Bob Woodmansey; Arlyne Reichert, assistant director of the McLaughlin Research Institute; and the late Leo Graybill, an attorney who became president of the convention.
Reichert, Rebal and Woodmansey got together as the last surviving members of the Great Falls delegation. They recalled political wheeling and dealing, funny moments and actions they took that still make them proud, reported the Great Falls Tribune (http://gftrib.com/2dqfVYx).
What they produced was a ground-breaking document that was barely passed by voters amid heated debate. And there were fears the new Montana Constitution might not pass at all.
It was close.
“I think without the gambling issue it would have never passed,” Rebal said. But the new Constitution left open the possibility of expanding gambling in Montana, and that convinced some pro-gambling people to vote yes.
“Remember how Leo got elected?” Rebal asked his fellow delegates. “Well, all the Democrats got together. Leo went around and made deals with the guys from Butte, Anaconda and Kalispell.”
And if such wheeling-and-dealing might have seemed unseemly to some, the selection of Graybill as president turned out to be fortuitous.
“He was such a good chairman,” Reichert said. “He was never going to cut off debate, and he never did.” That led to sessions running into the evening and a little grumbling, but everyone had their say.
“He couldn’t have handled it any better,” Woodmansey said. At the end, several people stood up with glowing praise of Graybill, including John Toole, a convention vice president.
Not that Graybill was a pushover. As Reichert recalled, “Leo didn’t want to rush.”
One late afternoon or early evening, delegates began pressuring Graybill to wrap up the day’s session.
“I know why you’re in a hurry,” Graybill shot back. “(Delegate) Betty Babcock’s throwing a big party.”
Another amusing moment came when the legendary aviator, Charles Lindbergh, came to Helena to address the convention. At one point, Lindbergh poked his nose into a hearing room to offer his wisdom to the chairwoman of an environmental committee.
“She told him she was busy,” Reichert recalled with a chuckle.
They also heard from the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress, Jeannette Rankin, a former Montanan in her 90s then living in Georgia. The 19 female delegates went out to lunch with Rankin, best known for voting against both World War I and World War II as a member of Congress. In 1972, she was a strong opponent of the Vietnam War.
Reichert and Woodmansey attended a reunion in Helena recently of the ConCon delegates, but only seven were there, and only 19 of the original 100 people are still alive. Next year, they plan a big wing-ding in Helena to mark 45 years after their work was completed.
“I don’t know if any of us will live to the 50th,” said Reichert, who is 90. Rebal is 95, and Woodmansey is 80. Reichert and Rebal ran as Democrats; Woodmansey was elected as a Republican. A fourth delegate who did not attend the gathering but lives in Great Falls is Bob Vermillion, who attended from an outlying county but later moved to Great Falls.
Rebal said he’s proudest of the document’s environmental passages, protecting the right of Montanans to live in a clean and healthful environment. Woodmansey is proud of the Constitution’s right-to-know provisions. Reichert said legislators at the time were notorious for acting in secret, but the new Constitution prohibited most secret meetings that plagued the state at the time.
No doubt it helped the convention that sitting legislators could not run to be delegates at the convention, the surviving Great Falls delegates said. Montana’s Legislature was pretty backward in those days.
Montana’s new constitution helped usher in one of the most progressive decades in Montana history. During the 1970s, under Democratic Gov. Tom Judge and a reform-minded Legislature, environmental laws were passed, and state prison, mental health and developmental disabilities inmates and patients benefited from a national trend toward treating people in communities, rather than warehousing them in large state institutions.
Montana took some big leaps forward into the modern era, even if the 1970s was tumultuous in Montana, with scandals and a sense of unease. Across the country and in Montana, hipsters wore bell-bottom pants and exhibited crazy hairstyles and regrettable sideburns. Montana has not seen such a reform-minded Legislature since then.
Writing the new Constitution proved to be a gargantuan effort that has paid dividends for years. These were people who worked hard and made history.
“You take a look at your life, I can say I was fortunate to be involved,” Woodmansey said.
Information from: Great Falls Tribune, http://www.greatfallstribune.com