Former First Lady Betty Babcock, who devoted much of her life to public service including as a Constitutional Convention delegate and state legislator, died in Helena on Sunday. She was 91.
As a volunteer, Babcock led fundraising projects for causes such as the restoration of the Montana Capitol and construction of a new state Historical Society museum building.
She was the wife of former Gov. Tim Babcock, who served governor from 1962 to 1969, and the mother of their two daughters, Lorna Kuney and the late Marla Fillinger.
“She was the grande dame of Montana for over half a century, a gracious and a sophisticated lady, as well as a deeply committed public citizen,” said former Secretary of State Bob Brown of Whitefish, a longtime Republican legislator.
Betty Babcock, a Republican
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“Even though I didn’t think the document was perfect and in spite of a lot of criticism from many close to me, I was anxious to see the constitution ratified and become law,” she wrote in the 2008 book, “Challenges: Above & Beyond,” written with her husband. “The delegates had done their best.”
She also was a businesswoman, involved in the management of the Colonial Inn, the $4 million hotel, restaurant and convention center the Babcocks built that opened in January 1970. It’s now known as the Red Lion Colonial Hotel and has been under different ownership for years.
The Constitutional Convention adjourned in spring 1972, but set aside some money saved from its budget to spend on voter education. The Montana Taxpayers Association and others successfully sued to block the spending.
After the state Supreme Court ruling, Betty Babcock donated an office in the Colonial Inn, along with phones, typewriters and a copier, for backers of the proposed constitution to use as their headquarters for the ratification campaign. Some delegates later credited her generosity as a key factor in the ratification of the constitution, which passed by only about 2,500 votes.
Through balls and other gala events and public speeches, Babcock also helped lead a private fundraising effort for the restoration of the Montana Capitol. The money raised augmented the money appropriated by the Legislature for the project.
“She was just so involved in so many things in her life,” said former Secretary of State Mike Cooney, a Democrat who worked on the Capitol project with her. “She just didn’t give up. She needed to be the person lighting the fire and getting these things done.
“That’s a great legacy for her to leave, and she completed a lot of very good programs that she started. Those things will live on, and they will live on because of the work of Betty Babcock.”
Babcock also spoke out publicly for stricter state and national laws regulating telephone solicitors after she lost several thousand dollars in a telemarketing scam. Babcock testified before the Legislature and spoke before a number of senior citizen groups in Montana and nationally about her experience.
“I think I can help prevent this from happening to others,” she said.
U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said, “Betty had a strong dedication to public service and bettering Montana, and her tireless commitment to our state, years of service to the Shodair Children’s Hospital and role in shaping Montana’s constitution and preserving our state’s history will never be forgotten.”
Daines said her “selflessness and generous spirit” profoundly affected him when he, then a Montana State University student, served alongside her as a Montana delegate for President Ronald Reagan at the 1984 Republican National Convention.
State Republican Chairman Will Deschamps of Missoula said, “Betty Babcock was a first lady right up until she passed away. She loved her husband, former Gov. Tim Babcock, in a way that made it a delight to be around them. She loved Montana, too, and she worked to make it better every day.”
Betty Lee was born March 11, 1922, in Aplington, Iowa. Her family moved to Montana four years later. She graduated from Dawson County High School and attended what was then Dawson Community College.
She married Tim Babcock Sept. 21, 1941. He joined her father’s trucking business, which eventually became Babcock & Lee. The Babcocks lived in Miles City, where he was elected to the state House, and later Billings, where he also was elected to the Legislature.
In 1960, Tim Babcock was elected lieutenant governor in 1960 with his close friend, Don Nutter winning the governor’s job.
Babcock became governor when Nutter and five aides and Air National Guardsmen were killed in an airplane crash during a blizzard near Wolf Creek on Jan. 25, 1962.
He has often said he was the only governor in Montana history to take the oath of office with tears in his eyes.