Memories of Governor Booth Gardner

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Gov. Booth Gardner & Nancy Niedzielski, election night
Gov. Booth Gardner & Nancy Niedzielski, election night

Nancy Niedzielski worked tirelessly along side Governor Booth Gardner in Washington to advocate for the state’s Death with Dignity Act. Voters approved the law in 2008 by a margin of 59% to 41%. Her efforts were documented in the groundbreaking documentary How to Die in Oregon which was honored at film festivals all over the world and nominated for an Emmy Award.

“Booth Who?” That campaign slogan in 1985 for an unknown Booth Gardner running for Washington State’s Governor no longer fit the man I met in 2008 during efforts to pass the Death with Dignity Law. He was now well known, having accomplished much in his two terms as Governor. His dedication to health care provided Washingtonians with a Basic Health Plan. That started efforts for a Healthcare Plan at the federal level accomplished several Presidents later. Governor Gardner’s dedication to the environment provided Washingtonians with a Growth Management Act. His dedication to education funded programs that lowered class sizes. His death last week ended a remarkable life of a humble man who treated others with respect, no matter how different their backgrounds were compared to his from inherited wealth.

In January 2008, he held a Press Conference at the State Capitol to launch the Death with Dignity campaign. He put time and money behind an effort that would never benefit him while benefiting others. His Parkinson’s disease, not considered a terminal illness, made him ineligible. His commitment demonstrated his same strong dedication to serve the public even after leaving public office.

I was scheduled to speak at that Press Conference with the Governor. Newly widowed, I was searching for a way to keep a promise to my husband, Randy. He died horribly from brain cancer. He wanted to use Oregon’s Death with Dignity Law but hospice said he wouldn’t live long enough to qualify. Randy was angry he was forced to endure an ugly death and asked me to promise I would get the law passed in Washington State, in spite of knowing it would never benefit him. I promised him I would. Just like Governor Gardner, he felt strongly no one should suffer through the kind of death he faced. I wrote to Governor Gardner asking for his help. Along the way, I discovered Compassion & Choices of Washington which led me to speak at the Press Conference alongside our former Governor.

When Governor Gardner walked into the Secretary of State’s Office that cold day in January, the room was warm from the pack of reporters, supporters and opponents. Media flashbulbs popped light and sound as he entered. The Governor’s smile reflected a man who was comfortable in the limelight of media. I felt the polar opposite. I hadn’t seen the Governor in the news for years. He looked different from the charismatic man who spoke his political mind with wit and philosophical reasoning. Parkinson’s changed his presence and gave him the same familiar shuffling gait Randy developed after brain cancer.

The Governor approached me introducing himself, as if I didn’t know who he was. He was no longer “Booth Who?” He offered a hug of encouragement, sensing my fear of news cameras. He spoke casually to the woman who handed him a form that would start the process of collecting signatures for the ballot. The cameras converged on his every move. He took the podium, speaking with a voice that had changed with his disease but had the same confidence of the man who had done this a hundred times before. He answered questions from the Press. He was a natural; I was not. When I took the podium, fright locked my knees. When I ended my speech, the Governor gave me a ‘thumbs up’ and another big hug. He was trying to make this rookie feel comfortable.

We shared several podiums throughout the campaign with audiences generously ignoring Governor Gardner’s difficulty with speech. His cadence was a familiar memory of changes that engulfed Randy after diagnosis. Following one of our speaking engagements, the Governor asked me, “Can I take you to lunch?”

How can you say no to a former Governor? Of course, I said yes.

The restaurant’s waiting list was forty minutes long. Governor Gardner plopped down on the foyer bench prepared to wait like all other patrons. Remembering Randy’s physical limitations, I covertly said to the twenty-something-year-old Hostess, “You’re too young to know but that’s the former Governor of Washington State, Booth Gardner. Is it possible we can be seated sooner?”

Two minutes later as we were escorted to a table, the Governor turned to me and asked, “I thought it was a forty minute wait?”

“I did a little name dropping,” I whispered.

“What! You told them who you are?” he joked.

It was obvious why he endeared voters to elect him to a second term, and likely a third if Parkinson’s had not ended his career. During our meal, his charm was captivating. His willingness to answer my inquiring questions about what it was like to be Governor revealed an open-hearted and honest man. He answered everything, no matter how personal. In return, he asked me what it was like gathering signatures. Were people rude, he wanted to know. As the Governor walked me to my car to say goodbye, he nonchalantly leaned in and kissed me.

My surprise mustered a clumsy, “Thank you for the lovely lunch, Governor Gardner.”

“Nancy, maybe I didn’t tell you. My name is Booth. Call me Booth,” he said smiling.

“I call you Governor Gardner out of respect,” I replied.

“I know you do, Nancy, but when we’re alone, you need to call me Booth,” he insisted.

I did from then on.

After our next speaking engagement, we again went out to eat. Customers stared as he walked through the crowded restaurant. He was recognizable in spite of the disease that changed his appearance. A woman, looking much older than her years, approached our table, with the aid of a walker.

“Thank you for what you’re doing,” she said to him.

She explained Multiple Sclerosis was limiting her life and wanted him to know how much his efforts to get the Law passed meant to her. Booth gladly interrupted his meal to listen, showing genuine concern and compassion.

I shared a podium with Booth at a Press Conference announcing our success at gathering enough signatures to make the November ballot. Chants from opponents drowned his speech. He politely asked dissenters to respect his right to speak, as he would respect theirs. He was an expert, calm and cool, experienced with those who opposed his political beliefs. His polite power was accustomed to facing adversaries. The protestors gave him the respect he deserved.

On Election night, we again shared a podium thanking those who worked on the campaign. When CNN called the results of a yes vote, Booth and I twirled in a victory dance. The song I chose, especially for him, was Ethel Merman’s “You’re The Top.” He was all that in my book.

In his autobiography, Booth mentioned Randy’s horrible death. My husband would have felt honored he shared something with Booth, a suffering death neither wanted, without a choice but for very different reasons. Governor Booth Gardner wrote he wanted to be remembered as someone who tried to help people. He did exactly that and then some. He will never again be “Booth Who?” and will always be the man I shared a celebratory dance with after a promise kept to the man I loved.

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