POLSON – Ethel Harding, the first woman elected to the Montana Legislature from Lake County, once voted against a 1991 bill that would have required the governor to appoint more women and minorities to state boards and commissions.
“I’d rather get someplace myself,” Harding said, “without any mandate saying you’ve got to put me there.”
Harding, who died Friday, did just that throughout her life, including 30 years in elected office.
More than two decades of Harding’s public life, however, also were spent waiting for the man who brutally raped and murdered her only daughter, Lana, in 1974, to be executed.
When Duncan McKenzie finally was, in 1995, he had been on death row longer than any other person in America. After nine successful appeals of his death sentence, McKenzie’s final one – in which he argued that being held under the threat of death for more than 20 years was cruel and unusual punishment – went nowhere with the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to grant a stay of execution.
The next day, on May 10, 1995, McKenzie was executed by lethal injection.
Harding, who supported the death penalty on the belief that it serves as a deterrent, did not attend. A year later, she told the Missoulian’s State Bureau she had forgiven McKenzie years earlier.
McKenzie didn’t owe her, Harding said, but he owed society.
“I can’t reverse what happened,” Harding said. “If I could, I would. I can’t afford to be bitter. When we have tragedies in our lives we can grow and progress, or we can grow within ourselves and curl up and die. If we do that, we’re no help to ourselves or anybody else.”
With that, the Republican retired after serving three terms in the Montana Senate and began a children’s ministry through the Pablo Church of the Nazarene.
“She was a fine lady, a strong person, just a good all-around person,” said former Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Turnage of Polson, whose decision to run for the high court in 1984 opened the door for Harding to seek what had been Turnage’s Senate seat.
The same year she first ran for the Senate, Harding – who had served as Lake County’s clerk and recorder since 1966 – encouraged John Mercer to file for the state House of Representatives.
Then, after Mercer and his Democratic opponent, Bill Bishop, nearly deadlocked and a recount automatically came into play, Harding – who also oversaw elections – found herself in charge of the recount.
Mercer said Harding assured both candidates the recount would be fair and accurate.
“She had an incredibly steady hand when it came to serving in government,” said Mercer, whose narrow win in his first election started eight terms in the Legislature, where he eventually became speaker of the House.
“More and more, we see people serving in the Legislature who don’t have local experience (in elected office),” Mercer said. “Ethel had a distinguished career as the Lake County clerk and recorder before she went to the Senate. She was much better at working with others and getting things done.
“She was very solid in terms of her convictions and beliefs in her conservative positions, but at the same time she looked after everyone. She cared about them as individuals, and it didn’t matter what their political positions were.”
A Montana native, Harding was born in tiny Fishtail in south-central Montana in 1927.
She grew up on farms in the Billings area, and married Warren G. Harding of Broadview in 1943.
While her husband served in World War II, Ethel moved to California to live with an aunt, attend business college and work to save money for a down payment on a home.
The Hardings and their two young children moved to a ranch outside Polson in 1954. Ethel began her many years as a county employee under former Lake County Sheriff Bill Graham, as a secretary and deputy sheriff. She also worked as a deputy clerk in the District Court office before running for clerk and recorder in 1966.
Daughter Lana was fresh out of college and in her first teaching job in a tiny school northeast of Conrad when McKenzie abducted, raped and murdered her. Lana was 23 years old.
Harding also was preceded in death by her husband and a grandson.
She is survived by her son, Greg, and his wife Kim of Ronan, four grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and three sisters.
Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.