Pete Cenarrusa

The son of Basque immigrants, Pete Cenarrusa was elected to public office 17 times—9 times as a state legislator and 8 times as Idaho Secretary of State—compiling a record of 52 years of continuous public service, the longest tenure of any officeholder in Idaho history.

In a career spanning the entire second half of the 20th century, from 1950 to 2002, Pete Cenarrusa became one of the most popular politicians in the state.  Over the course of that half century, both he and his wife Freda were active in numerous political, civic, and cultural causes, and Pete Cenarrusa used his influence as a senior American statesman of Basque descent to work for peace in his ancestral homeland.

The Pete Cenarrusa papers at Boise State University document an extraordinary political career, both in Idaho and on the international stage.

Scroll down to view the online exhibit "The Public Career of Pete Cenarrusa."


Pete Cenarrusa was born in 1917 in Blaine County, Idaho.  His parents Joe and Ramona were sheep ranchers in Carey, but they lived in Bellevue because they believed the larger town offered better educational advantages for their children. Pete Cenarrusa became the first member of his family to go to college, graduating in 1940 with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from the University of Idaho.  He became a teacher and was teaching and coaching in Carey when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.  He promptly enlisted in the Navy and became an aviator.

Pete Cenarrusa in uniform, World War II.

Pete Cenarrusa in the cockpit.


Upon completion of flight training, Cenarrusa was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps Reserve and became a flight instructor at Corpus Christi, Texas.  He was undergoing combat training--learning how to land on aircraft carriers--when the war suddenly ended with the atomic bombing of Japan.  He continued flying as a reserve officer until 1963.  He also flew as a civilian pilot, often providing rides to his friends and colleagues in his private plane. Over the course of 59 years, he logged more than 15,000 flight hours without an accident.


After World War II, Pete Cenarrusa returned to Idaho, resumed teaching, and began giving flight lessons.  One of his first flight students, Freda Coates, took weekly lessons while attending the Albion Normal School, Idaho’s state teacher’s college.  They started dating and eloped one weekend in October 1947.  They had  one son, Joe. 


Pete and Freda Cenarrusa became sheep ranchers in Carey, but it was not long before politics called.  Cenarrusa ran on the Republican ticket for State Representative from Blaine County and was elected in 1950.  He served nine consecutive terms in the Idaho House of Representatives, including three terms as Speaker of the House from 1963-1967.  Cenarrusa chaired both the Appropriations and Agriculture Committees and was chairman of the first Idaho Legislative Council.   

The new legislator outside the House chambers in Boise.


When Idaho's Secretary of State died suddenly in 1967, Governor Don Samuelson appointed Speaker of the House Pete Cenarrusa to fill his unexpired term. He held that office until 2002.  Among his innovations was publication of the state's first biennial Blue Book.  As one of Idaho’s constitutional officers, he also sat on the Land Board, which manages state-owned forest and rangelands. Though a staunch defender of grazing interests, he also earned a reputation as an advocate for the public schools, which benefit from sale and use of those lands.

Pete Cenarrusa being sworn in as
Secretary of State, 1967.


Pete Cenarrusa's name appeared before the voters as the Republican candidate for Secretary of State every four years from 1970 and 1998.  He was elected eight times, and was often unopposed.

Card from Pete Cenarrusa's first statewide campaign, 1970.

As both a state legislator and later as Secretary of State, Cenarrusa had the opportunity to meet with several Presidents of the United States.  The first President he met was Harry S. Truman in 1948, when he convinced the chief executive to speak at the dedication of the Carey airport. Click here to read his account of that event.   Of all the Presidents, he was closest to Ronald Reagan.  He chaired the Idaho committee to draft Reagan for President in 1968 and supported him in all his other presidential campaigns.

President Richard Nixon and Pete Cenarrusa, August 1971.


Freda Cenarrusa was an integral part of her husband’s political campaigns since his first in 1950.  Despite her claim that she didn’t like politics, Freda was as much a part of the Idaho political scene as her husband.  She was inducted into the Idaho Republican Hall of Fame for her campaign work and in 1993 received an “Outstanding Republican Woman” award from the Idaho Federation of Republican Women. 

Freda Cenarrusa (right) holds a stuffed elephant, 1965
(Idaho Statesman Collection)


Pete Cenarrusa learned the Basque language as a child and has been intimately involved in Basque cultural affairs his entire life.  He and his wife Freda made their first visit to the Basque Country in 1971.  In 1983 he was elected to the Basque Hall of Fame by the Society of Basque Studies in America, and in 2001 he was named a "Basque of the World" by the Sabino Arano Foundation in the Basque Country.

Pete Cenarrusa wearing a traditional Basque beret,
ca. 1970.

Pete Cenarrusa holds the flag of the city of Gernika during a visit to the Basque Country, 1993.


Pete Cenarrusa’s efforts to improve political conditions and foster autonomy for the Basque Provinces in Spain extend back to the 1970s when he petitioned for clemency for Basque political prisoners and worked with Senator Frank Church in urging a suspension of foreign aid to the Franco regime. His efforts on behalf of Basque autonomy and peace often drew the ire of Spanish governments, and a heated debate with the Spanish ambassador in Boise in 2001 generated considerable attention in both the Basque and American press.


In a tribute to Pete Cenarrusa’s long career in public service, the state office building located at Fourth and State Streets was renamed the Pete T. Cenarrusa Office Building in 1998.

Pete and Freda Cenarrusa pose outside the Pete T. Cenarrusa Office Building during the dedication ceremony, March 2, 1998.

Pete and Freda Cenarrusa formed the Cenarrusa Foundation for Basque Culture (originally known as the Cenarrusa Center for Basque Studies) in 2003 to provide resources for Basque-related performances, presentations and programs in Idaho and Oregon.

In 2006, the Basque Studies Program was created at Boise State University with the help of the foundation and the president of the Basque region. Students can earn an undergraduate minor in Basque Studies, as well as enroll in courses related to Basque history, culture, and language.

For more information about the Pete Cenarrusa papers at Boise State University, click here