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Former Congressman Teno Roncalio dies

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CHEYENNE - Former Congressman Teno Roncalio was remembered Tuesday as a colorful, legendary political figure who worked hard and effectively for the state during his five terms as U.S. Representative.

Roncalio, 87, died Sunday at Life Care Center in Cheyenne from congestive heart failure.

A funeral mass is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Saturday at St. Mary's Cathedral in Cheyenne.

Called the "last unreconstructed liberal" to represent Wyoming in Congress, Roncalio, a Democrat, successfully blocked efforts to use underground nuclear blasts to produce natural gas in southwestern Wyoming. Along with former Republican U.S. Sen. Cliff Hansen, Roncalio also was instrumental in passing legislation that increased the state's share of federal mineral royalties from 37.5 percent to 50 percent. The measure has meant millions of dollars in revenues to Wyoming.

Roncalio also played a key role in passage of strip-mining reform passed by Congress in 1977.

After he left Congress, Roncalio served as Special Master in the adjudication of water rights on the Big Horn-Big Wind River. The case pitted the state of Wyoming and several Wyoming irrigation districts against the tribes of the Wind River Reservation. Roncalio's decision that the tribes had the rights to water sufficient to irrigate 76,000 acres was affirmed later by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Born March 23, 1916 in Rock Springs, Roncalio was the eighth of nine children of Italian immigrant parents.

He attended the University of Wyoming from 1937 through 1939 then left the state to work for then U.S. Sen. Joseph Mahoney, a Democrat from Wyoming. While in the nation's capital, Roncalio began law school at Catholic University of America but his studies were interrupted by World War II.

Former Gov. Stan Hathaway recalled Tuesday that both he and Roncalio did their part in World War II. Roncalio was on the ground as an infantry officer with the 18th Infantry, First Infantry Division, while Hathaway was a radio operator and gunner in the Eighth Air Force flying missions over France.

Roncalio was in combat in seven campaigns, including North Africa, Italy, France and Germany. He earned the Silver Star for gallantry in action during the D-Day invasion at Omaha Beach in Normandy, France.

"He was a great man," Hathaway said.

After World War II, Roncalio returned to Wyoming and graduated from the University of Wyoming College of Law in 1947. He practiced law in Cheyenne and served as deputy county and prosecuting attorney for Laramie County from 1950 through 1956.

He was chairman of the Wyoming Democratic Party from 1957 through 1961 when he was appointed by President John F. Kennedy to the cabinet-level position of chairman of the International Joint Commission on Water Rights between the U.S. and Canada. He served until 1964.

Roncalio was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1964. Two years later, he ran for the U.S. Senate and lost to Republican Cliff Hansen. In 1970, Roncalio was elected to the U.S. House again and served until 1978 when he retired and returned to Wyoming to practice law.

Bill Bagley, a Cheyenne lawyer, served as campaign manager for Roncalio's first campaign and later in Washington, D.C. as his administrative assistant. "He was a real fighter for Wyoming and Wyoming issues," Bagley said Tuesday.

Roncalio, he added, had the ability and personality to build coalitions and to work well with Republican members of Congress.

"He was a great man and we'll not see his like again," former Secretary of State Kathy Karpan said."I think he was the last unreconstructed liberal from Wyoming."

Roncalio hired both Bagley and Karpan for his staff after he won the election in the Democratic landslide of 1963.

"It opened my life to politics," Karpan said. "He was my political godfather."

Perhaps his greatest coup in Congress, she said, was to block the Wagon Wheel project that would have allowed detonation of nuclear devices to free natural gas from tight underground rock formations in Sublette County. That project would have affected the headwaters of the Green River and created environmental nightmares for years to come, she said.

Roncalio's unusual coalitions could include such diverse groups as Italian-Americans, African-Americans and anti-Vietnam war activists, she said.

Rodger McDaniel, a Cheyenne minister, former legislator and new director of the Department of Family Services who also worked for Roncalio, said he was a kind and "beloved" man.

Former Sen. Tom Stroock, a Casper Republican who lost the 1972 election for the U.S. House to Roncalio, noted that while other politicians are known by their last names, Roncalio was always "Teno" to everyone.

Gov. Dave Freudenthal issued a statement saying Roncalio "was among the best of what Wyoming has to offer, and he will be sorely missed. I will remember him as a man of honor and dignity, one who always had the best interests of his state at heart."

Roncalio is survived by two sons Frank Roncalio, Cheyenne, and John Roncalio, Denver, and four stepchildren; David Domenico, Denver; Carol Dill, Boulder, Co.; Joan Jackson, Abilene, Texas; and Louis A. Domenico, Jr., Denver.

He was preceded in death in 1997 by his wife, the former Cecilia Waters Domenico.


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