Philipsburg's generosity earns segment on NBC’s ‘Today Show’

2011-12-18T07:30:00Z 2011-12-19T08:44:37Z Philipsburg's generosity earns segment on NBC’s ‘Today Show’By JOE NICKELL of the Missoulian missoulian.com
December 18, 2011 7:30 am  • 

For a man who has been seen by millions of people across America on television, Mike Cutler is a surprisingly reluctant celebrity. He is certainly glad that NBC's "Today Show" decided to come to town and film a segment; but even last Wednesday - two days after he and his family were featured on the show - he still wasn't entirely comfortable with the attention it focused on his personal life.

"I'm not real thrilled about the spotlight, if you will," said Cutler, who spends most of his days in a quiet, humbly appointed office at the Philipsburg High School, where he serves as school superintendent.

"The story really isn't about me and my daughter; we are just two examples of the things that make this community great."

Even on that point, Cutler feels obliged to clarify: He and his daughter, 12-year-old Sydney, were simply the beneficiaries of a great community's altruism. It is an altruism that runs deep, rooted equally in the multigenerational family and community connections of the Flint Creek Valley, and the fierce self-sustaining impulse of a town that knows it must constantly fight to survive.

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Around western Montana, of course, that spirit typifies plenty of small communities. Those who live around here see it so often, it can almost disappear, like the mountains that only tourists seem to notice loom so majestically.

It sometimes takes an outsider's perspective to be reminded of what's in plain sight. Residents of Philipsburg got a taste of that perspective last week, when NBC correspondent Bob Dotson reported a four-minute segment about Philipsburg's various initiatives to raise money for local causes.

"This is one of those moments that you are probably going to be feeling a little homesick for a place you probably have never been," Dotson said in introducing the segment, which aired nationally on the morning of Dec. 12 and which has since made the rounds as a regionally viral Internet video.

Central to the story were the community's efforts to raise money for the Cutler family, which suffered a double-whammy of major health expenses - first when Mike was diagnosed with leukemia in 2003; and then, in 2009, when Sydney was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor.

Both Mike and Sydney are now in remission. To them, cancer is old news, something they hope is all behind them.

But to the rest of America, the remarkable outpouring of support for the family -$200,000 in money raised through auctions, community meals, and other efforts, all within a county populated by just over 3,000 people and where the median household income is more than $20,000 less than the national median - is still an eye-opener.

"It brings us back to what a wonderful place this is," said Mike on Wednesday. "At times you get caught up in that day-to-day stuff that goes on, and you lose track of what the community's fabric is. So what the whole story did, for me, was to bring back the memory of how great this community and our valley, our county is."

The Cutler family's story wasn't the only one reported in the "Today Show" segment. Dotson also highlighted local efforts to remodel the volunteer fire department, referenced the community's preservation of its old brick school building, and visited the H&R Store, a thrift store on Philipsburg's main street, which since 1983 has raised more than $1.3 million for the Philipsburg Hospital and Rest Home.

Angela Knauer, the store's manager, said she was incredulous when Dotson showed up unannounced one day in mid-November and introduced himself.

"They walked in, and I was like, yeah right, you're not serious," laughed Knauer. "But then I saw their cameras, and I realized he actually was."

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On a personal level, the story led to some happy reconnections. Mike Cutler said he received an email from an old friend from his years in Little League baseball - a friend he hadn't heard from in three decades. Betty Tillerson, a volunteer at the H&R Store who appeared briefly in the video, received an excited note from her sister in Florida after the segment aired.

But for them, the value of the recognition ran deeper.

"Even if you don't know the Cutlers or anybody else around here, it's a moving story I think," said Tillerson. "When it aired, it just reminded me how proud I am to call this my home."

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