HELENA – Former Gov. Tim Babcock, who served as Montana’s chief executive from 1962-1969, died in Helena on Tuesday morning. He was 95.
Funeral arrangements are pending at Anderson Stevenson Wilke Funeral Home in Helena.
Although Babcock’s term an elected official ended in early 1969, he and his late wife, Betty, remained the first couple of the Montana Republican Party for many decades after that. They were regulars at state GOP conventions.
He attended every Republican presidential nomination convention from 1952 to 2012 and was honored as the oldest delegate at the 2012 convention in Tampa, Florida.
Babcock also was a prominent businessman. He and his wife built and operated what is now known as the Red Lion Colonial Hotel in Helena, and at one time owned a Helena television and radio station based in the hotel. The Babcocks later sold the hotel, but he kept an office there for decades afterward. They also owned a hotel in Spokane and the Ox Bow Ranch near Wolf Creek.
Babcock also was involved as mining industry consultant and for years was the Montana representative of a company that planned to built an ethanol plant in Great Falls, but it has not materialized.
When a Republican was considering running for statewide office, the first step was to visit the former governor at the office to seek his advice and perhaps support.
Tim Babcock was born Oct. 27, 1919, in Littlefork, Minnesota. His parents had moved there after losing their homestead at Crackerbox Creek in far eastern Montana because they weren’t able to make the land payments. Six months later, his family moved back to Crackerbox Creek to farm the homestead for a friend who had bought it.
He met Betty Lee when he was a senior in high school and she a sophomore at Dawson County High School in Glendive. He graduated in 1939. Betty Babcock graduated two years later and, they married in September 1941 when he was working at Douglas Aircraft in California.
He worked at the aircraft plant until enlisting in the U.S. Army infantry in 1944. Babcock fought at the Battle of the Bulge and later received a Bronze Star for heroism at Remagen Bridge.
After the war, Babcock returned to Glendive, he helped his father-in-law, Wood Lee, in his trucking business. One day, Lee asked if Babcock if he wanted to become partners. Babcock said in his book that all the extra money he could contribute to the partnership was the $500 he had won gambling on the ship that brought soldiers home from Europe. That was good enough for Lee, and the trucking company took on the name Babcock & Lee Truck Lines.
It expanded greatly over the years as the petroleum business grew in Montana.
Babcock later became active in politics, winning a state House seat from Custer County in 1952. The Babcocks later moved to Billings and he was elected to the state House from there in 1956 and 1958.
At the Legislature, Babcock became good friends with Donald Nutter, a state senator from Sidney.
When Nutter was gearing up to run for governor in 1960, he asked Babcock to run as lieutenant governor. Prior to the 1972 Montana Constitution, candidates ran for the two offices separately, but Nutter and Babcock ran as a team.
Nutter and Babcock both won their races handily.
On the night of Jan. 25, 1962, Nutter was killed in an airplane crash during a blizzard near Wolf Creek, along with two top aides and three members of the Montana Air National Guard.
Babcock said often he was the only Montana governor who had tears in his eyes when he was sworn into office.
As governor, Babcock was a traditional Western Republican conservative governor who called for holding the line on government spending, limiting government’s role and developing natural resources. He criticized President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, which created new government programs to fight poverty.
Babcock led the promotion of Montana’s Territorial Centennial in 1964, including backing a Centennial Train that traveled to the New York World’s Fair.
In 1964, Babcock retained the governor’s office, narrowly defeating the Democratic nominee Roland Renne, former president of then Montana State College in Bozeman, by 51 percent to 49 percent.
Two years later, Babcock lost a bid to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Lee Metcalf, with Metcalf winning, 53 percent to 47 percent.
In 1968, Babcock lost his race for re-election as governor. Attorney General Forrest H. Anderson, a Democrat, defeated him, 54 percent to 42 percent.
Babcock’s support of a 3 percent statewide sales tax was a major issue in 1968. Anderson opposed the sales tax, running on the slogan: “Pay more? What for!”
When Richard Nixon, a longtime friend, was elected president in 1968, Babcock had hoped to be appointed Secretary of the Interior. Nixon appointed someone else.
Instead, Babcock was recruited by wealthy oilman Armand Hammer, to be executive vice president of Occidental Petroleum subsidiary in Washington, D.C. It was a move Babcock came to regret, later calling Hammer a “scoundrel” and “schemer” in his book.
During the Watergate investigations, Babcock pleaded guilty to making illegal political donations totaling $54,000 to Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign in the names of himself and others. The money had come from Hammer.
Babcock was sentenced to four months in federal prison and fined $1,000. But the federal judge refused to send Babcock to prison, saying he was Hammer’s “leg man” and noting that another judge let Hammer off with only probation and a fine.
Betty Babcock died at age 91 in August 2013. She had a political career in her own right, winning election as a delegate to the 1972 Montana Constitutional Convention and the Montana House in 1974.
The Babcocks had two daughters, Lorna and Marla, who is now deceased, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.