SPOKANE, Wash., Oct. 18 (UPI) -- Tom Foley, the son of a Spokane, Wash., judge who rose through the ranks to become speaker of the U.S. House, has died, his wife said. He was 84.
His wife, Heather, confirmed to SeattlePI.com in an email that Foley, who had been in in declining health, died Friday morning.
"Tom's straightforward approach helped him find common ground with members of both parties, eventually leading to his election as the 57th Speaker of the House," President Obama said in a statement. "After his career in Congress, Tom served as the U.S. ambassador to Japan, where his poise and civility helped strengthen our relationship with one of our closest allies."
He said he and first lady Michelle Obama sent their thoughts and prayers to Foley's family.
Vice President Joe Biden said it was "an honor to work with him during the budget summits of the 1980s that did so much to secure our nation's future, and when he served overseas as our nation's ambassador to Japan. He was a good man."
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement Friday the House mourned Foley's passing.
"Forthright and warmhearted, Tom Foley endeared himself not only to the wheat farmers back home but also colleagues on both sides of the aisle," Boehner said. "That had a lot to do with his solid sense of fairness, which remains a model for any speaker or representative. Take it from the great [Rep.] Henry Hyde [R-Ill.], who used to say of Tom, 'I wish he were a Republican.'"
"With his passing, the House loses one of its most devoted servants and the country loses a great statesman," Boehner said. "He will be dearly missed."
Foley was elected to the House in 1964 from Washington's 5th Congressional District and in 15 terms, he became chairman of the Agriculture Committee, majority whip, majority leader and in 1989, the 57th speaker of the House. The man known as "Big Tom" also was U.S. ambassador to Japan, a presidential adviser on foreign policy, a principal at a high-powered Washington, D.C., law firm and a member of many boards.
Foley considered being returned to Congress for nearly 30 years, not sitting in the speaker's chair, his greatest honor, SeattlePI.com said.
"There's an awful sense of chance in public life," Foley once said. "It's something that plays a much bigger role than anyone realizes. The other side of that is, you have to take advantage of the chances offered."
In 1969, Foley married Heather Strachan, a lawyer and daughter of a foreign service officer, at a ceremony in Sri Lanka. Heather Foley became the unpaid chief of staff to her husband.
Foley steered legislation that created a Hells Canyon National Recreation Area on the Snake River. He also defended gun rights and was ally of the National Rifle Association until an unstable Air Force enlisted man went on a shooting rampage at Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane, killing five and wounding 22 in June 1994.
Foley allowed House passage of legislation banning the sale of 27 varieties of semiautomatic assault rifles, which President Clinton signed into law. The NRA committed $300,000 to defeat Foley in 1994. Foley lost to challenger George Nethercutt by fewer than 4,000 votes, a victim in the sweeping GOP takeover of Congress.
For the first time since the start of the Civil War, the Spokane Spokesman-Review said, a sitting House speaker lost a bid for re-election.
Foley retired in 2008, and had been in fragile health following hip and knee replacements, and Bell's palsy. He was in hospice care for several months.
The Spokesman-Review said funeral arrangements were pending at St. Aloysius Church at Gonzaga University, and in Washington.