[Pacific Lutheran Scene]
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-- Alumni --

Continuing the dream

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After the sudden death of her husband, Congressman Walter Capps '57, California Democrat Lois Capps '59 campaigned for his seat in Congress and now carries on his legacy.

Lois Capps '59 has braved a tumultuous year.
      The PLU alumna staged three election campaigns, won a congressional seat as a political newcomer and, along the way, emerged as a vanguard for her political party.
      At the center of it all was her husband, Walter '57, but he was not there to witness it. Since his sudden death in October 1997, Lois has grieved her loss by working to ensure that her husband's short stay on Capitol Hill isn't left unfinished. In March, Capps, (D-California), became the 36th widow elected to fill a husband's seat in Congress.
      "I still think about him every minute," she said. "There's some satisfaction that comes from sitting at the desk where he sat, from carrying out his legacy and building a new base that he didn't have time to build."
      Lois and Walter attended PLU in the 1950s, but Walter left a year before Lois enrolled in the school's nursing program. They later met at a Lutheran youth group in Portland, where Lois was completing her nurses' training at Emmanuel Hospital, and Walter was attending Portland State University. They married in 1960 and, after a few years in Connecticut where they both earned degrees at Yale University, settled in Santa Barbara, raising three children.
      Lois spent a few years at home with the children and then joined the local public school district, where she worked for 20 years as an elementary school nurse, coordinator of the teen parent program and health consultant for child development programs.
      Walter taught at the University of California at Santa Barbara, one of the first public schools to offer a religion department. He was a well-liked professor, leading a class on the Vietnam war that brought veterans into the classroom to teach. It became the largest class on campus. The couple occasionally cheered on favorite state legislators and helped them with their campaigns, but that was the extent of the Capps' political involvement, Lois said.
      That changed in 1994 when the local congressional seat came up for grabs because the incumbent was running for the Senate. Walter, who had never before sought elected office, decided to give politics a try. He ran against two other Democrats in the primary and won. He was not so fortunate in the general election, where he lost in what became the Republican sweep of 1994. But his was one of the closest races in the nation, so Walter and his family knew he would hit the campaign trail again.
      That's where he was in May 1996 when a drunk driver hit him and Lois as they returned from a campaign event. Walter took the brunt of the impact and was hospitalized in intensive care. He spent three months in a wheelchair with a broken leg and arm. The event catapulted Lois into politics. She quit her job and campaigned for her husband while he recovered.
      "There was a lot of pressure on him, but also a huge amount of support," she said. "Events can be solidifying and they can be traumatic. We emerged as a team, and the experience proved him to be a real person for a lot of people." He rejoined her in August of that year and together they weathered a campaign peppered with attacks. In one, Walter was accused of being the only person besides Polly Klaas' killer disappointed that the death penalty was given for her murder.
      The Capps' daughter, Laura, had caught the political bug during her father's first campaign and started working at the White House. Her boss, George Stephanopoulos, and the president, came in to campaign for her dad. Walter captured the election, becoming the first Democrat since World War II to hold the seat representing the Santa Barbara area.
      He brought his background in religion and academia to Congress, once telling the National Journal that he wanted to promote conciliation in the House and work toward a moral compass in his work. He was described by a local newspaper as "invoking an abstract view of God to encourage a return to community and human relationships."
      "He was interested in civil discourse and thoughtful representation, not partisan politics," Lois said. "He talked about restoring the bond of trust that seems to have been replaced by cynicism and apathy."
      Lois went with him to Washington, D.C. It would be their last few months together. In October 1997, Walter collapsed in Washington's Dulles International Airport and died as Lois performed CPR. The 63-year-old died of a heart attack.
      "We ended our marriage just as we started, doing a lot of things together," she said. "People commented to me later that they could remember seeing us hand-in-hand walking around the Capitol."
      Lois doesn't remember when, amongst the ensuing parade of mourners and memorial services, she first thought about replacing her husband in Congress. "It was a process I went through, first feeling the overwhelming affection people had for him," she said. "It became clear to me that he had a special relationship with people in the district and that his job was not finished. And who knows his mind better than me?"
      Besides the desire to complete her husband's term, Lois also started to realize that she had something to offer voters. Her 20 years as a nurse in public schools gave her front-line experience on "kitchen-table issues" such as education and health care. They were the core of her campaign when she ran for Walter's seat in a special election last January. She bested her conservative Republican opponent but failed to get the required 50-percent vote. When she finally was elected to Congress in a March run-off election, her victory was touted by the Democratic party as a precursor to future gains in the House.
      Lois now lives in a D.C. apartment with her daughter while she navigates her first year in Congress and prepares to run for re-election in November. She already has finished her third election of the year, a June primary in which she ran unopposed for her party's nomination.
      The 60-year-old sometimes finds it is her nurses' training that serves her best on Capitol Hill. "In nursing you learn to be a good observer and a good listener, which is not a common thing in politics," she said. "You learn to withhold judgment and make a place of action and carry it through. I have had to be an advocate all my life and that's what I am doing now."
      Her faith is a source of strength as well. The daughter of a Norwegian Lutheran minister, Capps is thankful for her family's heritage. "There is a sense you get having a strong religious father. You believe in the power of prayer and you know that this is what held people together for years," she said. "And you know that God works through ordinary folks."

Kim Bradford '94 is a reporter for the Tri-City Herald in central Washington. She and her husband, Scott Johnson '94, live in Richland.

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