DRUMMOND — She’s been living in this world-famous bull shipping town so long Gail Leeper can remember when they used to ship bulls.
She’s been mayor so long she can’t tell you precisely when she wasn’t.
That would be 1993, the year a 31-year-old Leeper stepped up from the Drummond town council to defeat a fellow councilwoman 38-33 for the mayorship.
Records of such things, if they’re kept at all, are sadly elusive. But Leeper’s six terms and going on 24 years as mayor have to rank high in state annals, especially for a woman.
They far outstrip the longest mayoral tenures for Montana’s two largest cities – Billings (Chuck Tooley, 10 years) and Missoula (John Engen, working on his 12th).
“There were a couple of times I didn’t even run” for re-election, Leeper said last week. “I was like, I don’t know if I want to do this.”
By write-in votes or appointment, she has remained the guiding hand of government in this Granite County burg that she loves with a passion.
It’s a rarity, but Leeper faces a challenger for her seventh term in November. She said she isn’t taking lightly the bid of Bob Teruel, who bought the Drummond Hotel with wife Emily in 2012.
A 1980 graduate of Drummond High, Leeper has seen firsthand the ebbs and flows of her hometown, which had a population of 267 when she was first elected and is now at roughly 350.
“I see it as we’re survivors,” Leeper said. “We’re such an industrial part of the county with the railroad and I-90, the mills we had and whatnot.
“There are times when people are looking at it, seeing the (empty) buildings, saying Drummond ‘s going to be a ghost town and this and that. I feel very prideful that we’ve stayed in the black and within our budget. And yet our roads are not in that bad of shape, and our sewer system is in great shape.”
No, she can’t do anything about “that whole train whistle thing.”
“I don’t hear it, but those calls I get on a weekly basis,” she said.
Then there are the kids at school where she’s a frequent substitute teacher and talks to a couple of groups each year about government.
“Their idea of what my job is is kind of skewed,” Leeper said with a laugh. “They’ll see me up at school and tell me not to give them any homework.”
Regular town council meetings are held once a month at town hall across A Street from the post office. Leeper seems to everywhere else between times.
At the school, if she’s not in classrooms, she’s helping out at the greenhouses on the school campus. She serves on the Senior Citizens board and Kiwanis Club.
As secretary of the Granite County tax appeals board, she made 15 trips up to the courthouse in Philipsburg last year.
“She’s freaking fabulous,” said Jennifer Parker, who owns Parker’s Restaurant in Drummond with husband Brent. “Chef” Brent, a former gourmet chef in San Francisco, coached a team of Drummond high schoolers to the state culinary championship last winter.
“Not only does she take care of the town but she shows such a personal interest in the school kids,” Jennifer Parker said. “I mean, she was down here almost every day last year when these kids won state, just to make sure they were keeping their grades up so they could go to the national championship.
“She’s not simply about the town, she’s about the people in the town.”
Leeper and her husband Mike, a local contractor, have been together since 1976, when she was in eighth grade and he was a sophomore. They were married in 1981.
“He has been very, very gracious all these years to be able to support me,” she said.
Though she didn’t plan to get into government, her family has a history of civic involvement.
Her father, Art Bowls, grew up in Drummond and was a fireman. Her mother, June, was town clerk for 13 years.
“I was watching all that while I was growing up,” Leeper said. “I guess I was just taught to volunteer for your community, and obviously that’s what this job is.”
She makes $500 a month with benefits, then writes a check back to the town for $533 for Mike’s health insurance. It still beats her original pay of $50 with no benefits. She eventually requested that be reduced to $49 for tax purposes.
Leeper and the town council want to resurface South Main, which runs past the city park and rodeo grounds, while the county builds a new $92,000 bridge over the Clark Fork River. The distinctive but fading blue water tank across the tracks with Drummond Trojans logos on the side is rusting inside and needs to be painted. And Drummond must either invest in new buckets to catch water leaks in the ceiling of town hall or replace the old roof.
Due to a budget overshoot last year by the Montana Department of Revenue, it looks like only the new roof on town hall will happen this year.
Drummond has contracted with a lawyer and an accountant to help clear up the mess.
“It’ll all work out. I know it will,” Leeper said. “I believe people trust me. I know they don’t like what comes out of my mouth sometimes, but I believe they trust that I’m being fiscally responsible, and that the council is too.”