Ben Ysursa had big plans when he retired this year as secretary of state – including traveling with his wife, Penny, spending time with his grandchildren and playing golf with friends at Plantation Country Club. Not long ago, he bought a townhouse near the course and a golf cart.
But these grand plans have been put on hold for now. Instead of working on his golf game and taking tips from the clubhouse pro, Ysursa is taking directions from his cardiologist. Heart problems surfaced a few months before his retirement and the 66-year-old Ysursa’s priorities have changed.
“My No. 1 chore in front of me is my health,” he said. “Not everything goes as planned, especially on the health side. Congestive heart failure takes the breath out of me and I’m not able to partake in retirement as much as I’ve wanted.”
Some of Ben’s friends tell him he never should have left the secretary of state’s office. But retirement, and the prospects of an easier lifestyle, had nothing to do with his situation. He started noticing shortness of breath in October of last year, and routine short walks became difficult.
Since then, he has gone through a series of tests and short hospital stays. He drops by the Plantation club from time to time, but for now golf is out of the question. He serves in the position “of counsel” with Gallatin Public Affairs, but his duties are limited because of his health. He also serves as a community member of the Idaho Statesman’s editorial board.
I know Ben in two ways – one from my days as a political reporter with the Post Register in Idaho Falls, and later, as an editorial writer with the Statesman. He was a model of cooperation long before he became secretary of state and a consummate professional after he took office in 2003. He knew election laws inside and out, and the pros and cons of every voting system imaginable. Ysursa was a Republican, but not partisan; all candidates were treated fairly by his office. On the state Land Board, he was known for his thoughtful approach.
Maybe people didn’t like some of his votes on the Land Board, and perhaps candidates didn’t like some of the elections laws in place. But Ben’s integrity was beyond reproach.
As good as he was professionally, I’ve enjoyed my friendship with him even more. If there’s a nicer person on the planet, I haven’t met him. As a fellow member of Plantation, we’d often tease one another about our golf handicaps. A general rule there is if you win anything – from a Thursday night league championship to a holiday couple’s event, you are branded as a “sandbagger.” It’s like a badge of honor.
One day, I was carefully studying a putt on one green when I heard this booming voice saying, “Malloy … you sandbagger!” Yep, it was Ben. And he had a wide grin on his face.
I haven’t played golf with him regularly, but it was a pleasure any time I did. He knows enough not to take the game, or himself, too seriously. Sure, he might say a few choice words after a bad golf shot – as most of us do. But no matter how dismal a golf round may be, there’s always a cold beer and light conversation waiting on the 19th hole.
For now, Ysursa is paying attention to what his doctor says. He’s lost nearly 50 pounds, and he acknowledges he needs to lose more. He hates to walk the golf course, but knows it might be important for him to do so when he returns to the game he loves.
There is no shortage of friends who are pulling for him – from the fellow golfers at Plantation to the group that joins former Gov. Phil Batt for regular golf outings during the summer. As for myself, I look forward to the day I can pay him back and shout out, “Ysursa … you sandbagger!”
Get well, my friend.