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Jack Chambers, right, hugs client Larry Burke during Chambers’ farewell party at Opportunity Resources Inc. on Friday. Chambers is retiring after 28 years as chief executive officer of ORI, which employs and serves hundreds of adults with disabilities.

TOM BAUER/Missoulian

Jack Chambers bid adieu to his family of hundreds at Opportunity Resources Inc. on Friday, a family that recognizes its longtime chief executive officer only as Jack.

“Nobody knows who Mr. Chambers is. It’s just, ‘Hi, Jack,’ ” remarked Linda Pearson, ORI’s human resources director who has been there even longer than Chambers.

Jack was the perfect Santa at Opportunity Christmas parties. He took his turns captaining the pontoon boat on client outings to Seeley Lake and at piloting the tractor that pulled the hay wagon at the Opportunity Ranch in Frenchtown.

One client will especially miss the fishing and hunting expeditions he went on with the CEO. He bagged a five-point buck in the Garnets on one of the latter, said 59-year-old Willie.

Twenty-eight years after Chambers arrived at the nonprofit enterprise for the disabled, one that has become among Missoula’s largest employers and serves hundreds of adult clients, he slipped into retirement this week.

“When I first came here, I had this big beard,” Chambers joked in an address in the crowded cafeteria during a lunchtime goodbye at ORI headquarters on South Russell Street. “I told the board I never understood why they hired a guy who came to town dressed in a Western suit and cowboy boots and a big beard. They took a chance.”

When Chambers arrived in 1985, the business was Opportunity Industries and it served 60 clients with 22 staff members and a budget of $600,000 a year. The enterprise merged with Big Bear Resources in 1992 to add living services to employment and training offerings.

Now it serves more than 400 clients a day with a staff of some 300 and a budget that has expanded twentyfold and an array of opportunities that has multiplied at an equal pace.

***

Chambers has been at the helm with an approach described Friday as approachable. Whether you were an ORI client, an employee, a local businessman or a state legislator, you had Jack’s ear.

“Jack has never been anything but friendly, kind, courteous and willing to problem solve – and that’s big,” said Denalie Bruins, whose son David, 40, has been at Opportunity for nearly half his life.

“Everybody will miss his leadership and his openness,” noted Thomas Smyth, corporate investigator and a 30-year employee at Opportunity. “You can go see him any time to talk to him about whatever you need to.”

“His door was always open,” agreed Pearson, who has worked at ORI in various capacities since 1980. “He didn’t go into his office and shut the door. (Being) Santa is a perfect example. He didn’t close himself into his little ivory tower.”

Chambers spent most of December grooming his replacement. Jesse Dunn won’t take over as president of the Montana Wild Sheep Foundation, however – Chambers will hold onto that job.

But the shoes Dunn must fill have strode comfortably in legislative halls in Helena, advocating for the disabled, and into the boardroom of the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce. Chambers spent a term as Chamber president and in 2012 was the recipient of its George Award for significant contributions to the community of Missoula.

“The biggest thing about the Chamber was to be accepted by the businesses in the community,” he said. “I mean, some awesome business people. As a nonprofit that was quite a deal.”

Chambers was also president of the Habitat for Humanity board for two years in the early 2000s. Retirement, he said Friday, will allow him to get involved with Habitat again, as well as travel with wife Bonnie and “do more fishing.”

“There are the clients, the folks with the disabilities, that just love him. They’re having a hard time with this, and he is, too,” said ORI’s development director Tim Furey.

***

Opportunity was founded in 1955 as Opportunity School Foundation, serving school-aged students. Public schools took on teaching students with disabilities in the late 1960s, and the agency’s focus shifted to adults.

Chambers was a teacher – first in his native Minnesota, then in Oregon – before he started working with disabled service programs almost 40 years ago. He came to Opportunity from a similar nonprofit, Big Horn Enterprises of Thermopolis, Wyo., where he was CEO.

“I started this path a long time ago,” he said. “I think you just stay in something like this because of the people. It’s where your heart tells you to go.”

When he arrived in Missoula, Opportunity Industries was housed on Marshall Street a mile to the north. The move to the larger building on Russell took place in 1990. Under Chambers’ leadership, ORI has expanded to include four group homes, two apartments, seven independent living homes and, in 2004, the 160-acre Opportunity Ranch.

A couple of dozen case workers in nine communities now assist people with disabilities, and 75 businesses in Missoula provide employment opportunities through the EmployAbilities program. Community crews have begun cleanup projects in buildings, parks and the downtown district, and the Choices program provides jobs for more than 100 people through bulk mailing, packaging and assembly, and document shredding. A fast-growing art program served 95 individuals at ORI this past year, providing them opportunities to sell their works.

“There are buildings and things like that, but that’s not really me,” Chambers said as he exchanged hugs, handshakes and quips with a steady stream of well-wishers of all ages. “The real highlight is just like today. It’s people and being able to become more a part of their communities.”

“Of course we’re going to miss him. Absolutely we’re going to miss him,” Pearson said. “The consumers love him to pieces. He’s the best Santa in town.”

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at (406) 523-5266 or by email at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

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