BILLINGS – Missoula native John Badgley’s workout regimen used to be aimed at preparing him for the annual Lilac Bloomsday Run in Spokane, Wash.
This year, the 81-year-old retired professor increased his fitness schedule to get ready for another event: picking up thousands of donated books from libraries across Montana. The books eventually will make their way to libraries in Myanmar, the Southeast Asian nation formerly known as Burma.
Badgley, who now lives in Edmonds, Wash., put his training to work earlier this week outside the library at Montana State University Billings. As campus workers using hand carts brought out 150 boxes of books, Badgley rearranged them in the back of his rental truck, often stooping to lift another heavy box and reposition it.
The local liaison for the project was Bill Cochran, director of the Parmly Billings Library, which rounded up 34 boxes of books. Sixteen more boxes were donated by the Rocky Mountain College Library.
From Billings, accompanied by his old friend and longtime associate David Leuthold of Molt, Badgley set out to collect books from libraries stretching from Columbus to Whitefish. They expected to gather about 15,000 books in all.
The effort is a collaboration between the Montana Library Association and Nargis Library Recovery. Badgley started the recovery project with a colleague in Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis swept through southern Myanmar in 2008.
The cyclone, considered the worst natural disaster in the history of Myanmar, killed nearly 140,000 people and left another 800,000 homeless. It also obliterated more than 1,000 village libraries.
By the end of 2011, the project had distributed 600,000 books to 250 libraries in Myanmar. The project’s mission recently expanded thanks to what Badgley called “a perfect storm of good things.”
The main thing is that after decades of repressive military rule, Myanmar is making tentative steps toward reform and democracy.
As a result, the U.S. government recently lifted a longstanding embargo on educational and humanitarian shipments to agencies controlled by the Myanmar government.
That means Badgley and his supporters can donate books to Myanmar’s college libraries.
Badgley has a particular interest in those libraries. He received his first Fulbright scholarship to work in Burma in 1957. Thirty years later, on his second tour as a Fulbright scholar, Badgley surveyed the resources and needs of every college and university library in Myanmar.
“What they needed was enormous,” he said.
Many of the books collected in Montana will go to those institutional libraries, where knowledge of English is common and where technical books in particular are in short supply.
At the village libraries devastated by the cyclone, Badgley said, there is a need for books in English but also in Myanmar. To meet that need, the Myanmar Book Aid and Preservation Foundation, which he co-founded, has sold about 20 percent of the books collected through the Nargis Library Recovery. Proceeds of the sales are used to buy Burmese-language books.
Badgley’s parents homesteaded in Hardin and Custer, and he was born in Missoula. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Montana and went on to earn a Ph.D. in political science at the University of California at Berkeley.
He taught at several universities, wrote two books on Myanmar and founded the Institute of the Rockies in 1973 in Missoula with his, wife Patricia. He ran the institute, a public policy education organization, for 12 years before going to Cornell University as curator of the school’s Southeast Asia collection.
He met Leuthold in a “Life and Teachings of Jesus” class at UM when they were both young students, and Leuthold went on to earn a political science doctorate from Berkeley at the same time as Badgley.
Leuthold was later an original associate of the Institute of the Rockies and is now chairman of the Nargis Library Recovery board of directors. He and his wife, Carolyn, manage the family ranch near Molt.
Badgley, the son of a Baptist minister, said he seems to get along best with religious people who have charitable impulses, even though he describes himself as “a jolly atheist.”
Among the devout philanthropists he has worked with is a group of relatively young Mormon men who own Thrift Books, a giant Web-based seller of used books. They have agreed to donate 1 million books to the Nargis project.
Badgley said they were easy to work with, especially since they had already tried donating books to other organizations. “They only needed one answer: ‘Yes, we can take a million books.’ ”
Badgley said Myanmar has a long road ahead, with uncertain prospects. One factor in its favor is that it has “an enormous power of tradition” and a people with an unusual degree of pride and cohesiveness.
Though there is widespread poverty and deep divisions along ethnic and religious lines, there is a great respect for knowledge and education, and “libraries are the center of the common ground.”
“People can identify with a library whatever their language or religion,” Badgley said.