Legendary Hi-Line legislator dies in Northern Montana Hospital Sunday
By Tim Leeds
Francis Bardanouve of Harlem, a legend in Montana politics, will be remembered as a man of great integrity and kindness.
"He made the Legislature a very honorable place because of his integrity," former state Rep. Dorothy Bradley, D-Bozeman, said of Bardanouve, who was a Democratic state representative from 1958 to 1993. "On top of his integrity he was also fearless and had a steel-trap mind, but he was always kind and helpful."
Bardanouve died in a Havre hospital Sunday following an operation Friday to remove a tumor on his colon. His wife, Venus Bardanouve, said her husband had been active both in politics and on his ranch, and his death was a horrible surprise.
"He was doing fine, then just went sour and died," she said.
She added that the care he received in Havre was wonderful.
"It wouldn't have been any better at the Mayo Clinic," she said.
Venus Bardanouve said her husband attended a meeting of the last legislative committee he was active with, the Prison Ranch Committee, just last month. He was a founding member of the committee.
State Sen. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, said Bardanouve's enormous work ethic was always evident in the Legislature.
"He studied the issues very carefully and beyond just the study and knowledge of the issues he exercised the finest judgment in making policy decisions," Jergeson said.
Bardanouve's integrity was involved in all of his work and decisions, Jergeson said.
"He had an enormous bond with his constituents, and they trusted him, he trusted them. Francis carried that trust with him in his work in the Legislature," Jergeson said. " He was a humble man, despite all of the accolades people gave him. He was very humble, but I think that's why people knew they could trust him so much. He wasn't doing it for himself, he was always doing his legislative work for the people."
Former state Sen. Dorothy Eck, D-Bozeman, said her first experience with Bardanouve was when she was lobbying for the League of Women Voters in the late 1960s.
"He was a real inspiration to us because he was so open and direct," she said.
And that continued when she served with Bardanouve in the Legislature.
"He was an inspiration to all of us," she said.
Bradley said that in the last eight years she was in the Legislature her entire goal was to learn the appropriations process from Bardanouve, who was an expert on the subject.
Bardanouve was chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee for 10 legislative sessions.
"When we put that budget together I'm sure he knew every dollar of it," she said.
Bradley said Bardanouve had an incredible ability to balance expenses and revenue.
"He seemed to have an inner balance or an inner set of scales of what was essential and what people could afford," she said.
Former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont., who also served in the Montana House of Representatives with Bardanouve, said the balancing was always difficult for Bardanouve.
"He was a social liberal and a fiscal conservative, and, frankly, he always had trouble reconciling the two," Williams said.
But, Williams said, Bardanouve's intelligence helped with that and other issues.
"Francis was the smartest legislator I ever knew, local, state or national," Williams said. "Along with his quick mind he possessed an earthy commonness that is uncommon among most elected officials. The Francis you saw was the Francis you got."
State Rep. Matt McCann, D-Harlem, said Bardanouve's kindness and hard work were present in all of his life, not just the Legislature. Along with tangible help he gave to the community, like fuel or feed, he had kind personal contact with the people in the area.
"What made the most impact to me were the (personal) notes that he wrote," he said.
Bardanouve was not all seriousness and hard work, though.
"He had this wonderful sense of humor," Bradley said. "He did things no one else could get away with. He had a very spontaneous sense of humor."
During one heated debate, Bradley said, Bardanouve purposely overreacted and slid under the table. Probably just in time, she added, as it broke the tension in the room.
Williams said the leadership Bardanouve provided created significant improvements in state mental health and prison facilities, greater equity in Montana's tax policy and an improved fiscal budgeting system, all of which affected all Montanans.
Bardanouve also affected some political careers.
Jergeson, who is now running for a seat on the Public Service Commission, said he remembers meeting Bardanouve at a dinner when he was a child and Bardanouve was campaigning for his first term. It was Bardanouve who influenced him to run for the state Senate in the 1970s.
Jergeson suggested that Bardanouve run for the state Senate and that Jergeson would then run for Bardanouve's House seat. But Bardanouve persuaded him it would be better for Jergeson to run for the Senate, he said.
"I ran for the Senate at his instigation, and decided this fall to run for the (state Public Service Commission) at his instigation," Jergeson said.
He said Bardanouve taught and influenced many people during his life.
"He was my mentor," Jergeson said. "He had this enormous capacity to share his skills and his counsel with so many people."
Venus Bardanouve, who was married to Francis for 35 years, said she first met him while working for the state Board of Health in the early 1960s. She was interviewing people in Montana to get information for the program she headed to help people with cleft palates. She interviewed Bardanouve, who had a cleft palate, and soon he started coming to visit. Then they started dating.
Eck said Venus Bardanouve deserves a lot of credit for making him the persuasive speaker he was, helping him to overcome his speech impediment.
Venus Bardanouve said her husband's death, while a shock, may have been for the best. Along with the colon surgery, the 84-year-old rancher was recently diagnosed with diabetes and needed hip replacement surgery. Being thrown by a bull recently probably didn't help his hip, either, she said.
The convalescence, diabetes and hip replacement could have made his life difficult, especially for such an active man, she said.
"I think he was taken from the evil that was to come," she said.
He is survived by his wife and three children.
Bardanouve's funeral will be Friday at 2 p.m. in the Harlem High School gymnasium, with burial to follow in the Harlem cemetery.