Carlson: Bruning, An Idaho Original

Note:  Reprinted, without permission, from magicvalley.com.

BruningBy Chris Carlson The Carlson Chronicle

His name was Rollie Bruning, though some called him “RJ” as his by-line in print was always R.J. Bruning. I thought about him the other day when I took our grandchildren to Wallace to visit the old train depot. On our way there, we walked past the store front office of what used to be The North Idaho Press.

My first journalism job was a brief stint at the paper during the late summer of 1968. The paper’s owner, Wallace mining magnate, Harry F. Magnuson, had hired Jay Shelledy to run the paper for two weeks as Bruning had suffered a heart attack. Shelledy, already doing a summer stint with The Spokesman-Review, subcontracted the job to me and gave me a two-day crash course in journalism.

When I showed up on a Monday morning there sat Bruning as if chained to his desk and his trusty old typewriter, cigarette dangling from his mouth. Be damned if he was going to let some snot-nosed kid run his paper for a couple of weeks. He convinced me though to stick around for the two weeks and help out. I learned quite a bit from him.

He was a classic Idaho original — opinionated but well-read, boisterous but with an ability to tell great stories, and had a wonderful, infectious laugh. He could handle his whiskey and loved to play poker. Like Harry Magnuson, he was a rock-ribbed Republican, when Shoshone County was the most Democratic county in the state.    

He also was an outspoken supporter of Gov. Don Samuelson. Wallace and Kellogg were totally dependent on mining. Bruning was well-versed on the Mining Law of 1872, and on all aspects of the industry itself. During the 1970 gubernatorial election, he often criticized Cecil Andrus for his opposition to Asarco’s proposed molybdenum mine in the White Clouds.

So, I was somewhat surprised when, in late 1974, Andrus told me to put out a press release announcing that Bruning was joining the gubernatorial staff as a special assistant and an unofficial envoy to the business community. In a politically astute move, Andrus recognized that RJ was the perfect ambassador to Idaho’s business community and to the various clubs they belonged to — the Rotarians, the Kiwanis, the Lions, the Elks. Wherever two or three business folks gathered, one would find RJ in their midst, and he must have spoken to every club in the state.

When Andrus became Interior Secretary, almost all the Idaho Mafia he took along was under the age of 35, except RJ. Though in his 60s, his vast knowledge of mining and his good relations with the industry, made him indispensable. Besides, he had gray hair and whiskers. Andrus installed RJ as a deputy assistant secretary for Energy and Minerals, a move well received.

Two brief anecdotes paint the picture. Rollie was a great story teller. One of his favorites was when he was starting out at the North Idaho Press in the early 50s. Early in the morning of Valentine’s Day in 1954, a stranger came into the town with a rifle and started shooting up Main Street. He killed a miner on his way to work and wounded two others.

The newspaper was in the storefront right next to the store the gunman was shooting from, but Bruning was determined to get into the office and file on the Utah/Idaho Associated Press relay wire. He would have his audience in stitches as he described hugging the wall, crawling around the corner, getting into the office, then bobbing his head up and down as he filed several times over the five-hour gun battle.

The other thing he drilled into me was that the average Idaho reader had, he said, about an eight grade education. I was to write to that level. He railed at me for lacing my copy with too many highfalutin words. He referred to them as “four-bit” words.

What really set him off was I had started an editorial with the four-bit word, psittacism. Admittedly, I was showing off and he was correct to kick my behind.

I’m ending today’s column with the word, however. It means “for one to parrot what they hear without having any concept of the meaning, like the parrot bird.” It describes perfectly so many of Idaho’s tea party types.

They repeat what they hear without knowing what they are saying. Bruning would roll over to think they might even have a shot at taking over the Grand Old Party in Idaho. Think about that when you vote on May 20th.

Kellogg native Chris Carlson was the longtime press secretary for former four-term Gov. Cecil D. Andrus.

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