When you ask Kathleen Williams who her political hero is, you get a surprising answer. It’s not a woman. It’s not even a Democrat. It’s Dick Knox.
Dick Knox was a rancher from Winifred who served in the Montana legislature for several sessions in the ‘80s and ‘90s. He was a Republican. He was conservative. And when Kathleen Williams came to Montana to work as professional staff for the legislature, he chaired her committee.
In those days before term limits, committee chairs were highly experienced as lawmakers and thoroughly versed in the issues. They had also usually developed the skill of talking and listening across perspectives and party lines, a skill rare as hen’s teeth now.
When environmentalists needed to create a partnership with ag on an stream restoration, they’d approach Dick Knox. He might not end up signing on, but he’d listen to learn, ask questions, and consider their proposal carefully. If you won him over, he’d help you get it done.
When the freemen were up to their crazy stuff near Jordan and the legislature sent a delegation to talk sense to them, one of the four was Dick Knox. They sent him because he was easy on the nerves. He didn’t rail or rant or rave, though a little of all three would have been justified at the time. He just talked, one Montanan to another.
That was the man Kathleen came to know as her committee chairman. He was known as “Iron-bladder Knox,” she chuckles today, because he’d let a committee hearing last as long as was required to give every member of the public the opportunity to speak. Committee meetings started at 3 p.m. and sometimes lasted well into the evening because if anyone had traveled over winter roads just to stand at a podium with trembling hands and read testimony to a roomful of strangers from a piece of paper torn out of a spiral notebook, Chairman Knox was going to make sure that person got to do just that.
“Sometimes I’d have to nudge him after a few hours,” Kathleen recalls, “because other committee members really did need to take a break! That’s where the ‘Iron-bladder’ label came from.”
Knox didn’t just let people speak. He listened. “The entire hearing he would be sitting forward in his chair, his eyes fixed on whoever was testifying, totally intent on what they were saying,” Kathleen remembers.
It was an impressive introduction to public service, one Kathleen has never forgotten. Her time with Chairman Knox was too brief. In the middle of their second session together, Knox, who had a rare form of leukemia, began to tire. A bone marrow transplant was planned. But on a trip to Billings on another matter, he was hospitalized and never recovered.
Although Kathleen didn’t share Knox’s political views, they shared an important time together. As his committee staffer, she had come to know his family, and when he died they asked her to sing at his funeral.
Death is nonpartisan. Winifred High School was packed with politicians of every age, philosophy and era that day. When Kathleen arrived, she asked Knox’s wife, Doris, what she should sing.
“His favorite hymn was ‘His Eye Is on the Sparrow,’” Doris responded. “Would you be able to sing that?”
She sure would. And with the help of a local music teacher, she sure did. Twenty-one years later, when she thinks of that crowded gymnasium, where the highly placed and the commonplace became one for a silver sliver of time, mourning the loss of this consummate public servant, her voice quavers.
“’His Eye Is on the Sparrow,’” she reflects. “So perfect for Dick Knox. He was so respectful of everyone. He made sure they got to speak their piece. And he did more than that. He really listened. He really considered what they had to say.”
Dick Knox was proud to be part of “the people’s house,” a representative. He epitomized what “representing” looks like. It doesn’t look like the scripted sham now known as the “telephonic town hall.” It doesn’t look like pre-schoolchildren running for their mother’s skirts whenever a constituent – or an opponent or a reporter – asks a question that might require an unscripted answer.
Dick Knox taught Kathleen Williams well. In her three terms as a legislator after he died, Kathleen Williams consistently showed the same respect for constituents that she admired in him; the same sense of fair play; and the same true engagement with people and ideas.
There are many reasons to vote for Kathleen Williams. She tells the truth. She’s smart. She’s independent, courageous, and extraordinarily experienced in law-making and constituent relations.
But the main reason is this: Like her fallen friend, she keeps her eye on the sparrow. She’s done that throughout a career uninsulated by wealth from public scrutiny, a career primarily in the public eye, and a private life too well-versed in untimely loss to take anyone for granted. As our Congresswoman, you know she will watch out for you. You deserve her representation.