Robert E. Smylie, Governor

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Robert Eben Smylie

Birthdate: (89)
Birthplace: Marcus, Cherokee County, Iowa, United States
Death: July 17, 2004 (89)
Boise, Ada County, Idaho, United States
Place of Burial: Boise, Ada County, Idaho, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Lorne Francis Smylie and Ida May Stevens

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Immediate Family

About Robert E. Smylie, Governor

Robert Eben Smylie (October 31, 1914 – July 17, 2004) was an American politician and attorney from Idaho. A member of the Idaho Republican Party, he served as the 24th Governor of Idaho for twelve years, from 1955 to 1967.

Early years

Born in Marcus, Iowa, Smylie graduated from high school in Cresco in 1932 at the height of the Depression. Offered a place to live by an uncle, he moved to Idaho to attend the College of Idaho in Caldwell. During the school year, he participated in debate, the yearbook, football, and student government, and hitchhiked back to Iowa in the summers.

After his graduation in 1938 he moved to Washington D.C., where he simultaneously clerked at the law firm of Covington Burling, was a U.S. Capitol policeman, and attended George Washington University Law School until his graduation in 1942. He married Lucile Irwin on December 4, 1943 and the couple had two sons.


Having begun practicing law in Washington, D.C., Smylie left his practice in 1942 to join the U.S. Coast Guard as a lawyer and was stationed in Philadelphia and the Philippines during World War II. He returned to his private practice in 1946.

In January 1947, Smylie became a deputy attorney general in Idaho, under newly-elected Robert Ailshie. Later that year, Ailshie unexpectedly died of a heart attack at age 39 and Smylie was appointed attorney general at age 33 by Governor C. A. Robins. After he was elected to a full term in 1950, Smylie ran for governor in 1954, as the seat was not eligible for re-election at the time and was held by Republican Len Jordan. Starting with the 1946 election, Idaho changed from two-year to four-year terms for governor, but with the change it disallowed self-succession (re-election). Smylie was elected governor in 1954 and successfully lobbied the 1955 legislature to propose an amendment to the state constitution to allow gubernatorial re-election, which was approved by voters in the 1956 general election. Smylie was re-elected in 1958 and 1962, and remains the only one in Idaho history to win three consecutive four-year terms as governor, and was its first governor born in the 20th century.

During his tenure, a state park system was created and a sales tax adopted. While governor, Smylie served as chair of the Western Governors Association (1959–1961) and as chair of the Republican Governors Association. He was a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1960. Smylie served on the National Governor's Conference Executive Committee from 1956 to 1957, from 1959 to 1960, and in 1963.

Smylie ran for a fourth term in 1966, but was soundly defeated (61 to 39%) in the Republican primary by his successor, Don Samuelson, whom he had encouraged to run for the state senate six years earlier. Smylie attributed his support of the newly implemented sales tax of three per cent in 1965 as a major factor in his defeat. The sales tax was easily approved by voters in the November election; it stayed at three per cent until 1983 and is now six per cent.

Election results

Idaho Gubernatorial Elections: Results 1954–1962

1954 Clark Hamilton 104,647 45.8% Robert Smylie 124,038 54.2%

1958 A.M. Derr 117,236 49.0% Robert Smylie (inc.) 121,810 51.0%

1962 Vernon Smith 115,876 45.4% Robert Smylie (inc.) 139,578 54.6%

Smylie returned to the practice of law in 1967 and served as Trustee, Chair of Trustees, and as acting President of the College of Idaho. He ran for the open U.S. Senate seat in 1972, but finished fourth in the Republican primary, won by Jim McClure.


Smylie died in Boise at age 89 on July 17, 2004, and his wife Lucile passed away less than six weeks later. They are interred at Pioneer Cemetery in Boise.

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Robert E. Smylie, Governor's Timeline

October 31, 1914
Marcus, Cherokee County, Iowa, United States
July 17, 2004
Age 89
Boise, Ada County, Idaho, United States
Boise, Ada County, Idaho, United States