Eric Elander had good reason to hail the announcement Tuesday night that the University of Montana had settled on Seth Bodnar for its next president.
It meant his daughter is coming home.
“Yes, we are proud of Seth Bodnar and Dr. Chelsea Elander Flanagan Bodnar,” Elander, owner of Sp2m Marketing in Missoula, posted on Facebook. “They will be a huge benefit to the Missoula community, and the University. What other University can say their President and First Lady are both Rhodes and Truman scholars?”
Chelsea Bodnar is a Harvard-educated pediatrician who grew up in Missoula and even lived on the UM campus when she was in first grade. Her mother, Rita Sommers-Flanagan, was head resident at Aber Hall at the time while pursuing a doctorate in psychology.
“I have lived in one other country and six other states since leaving Montana, and all of those experiences have only reminded me what a unique, creative, passionate, beautiful place this is,” Bodnar said Wednesday in an email. “I am enjoying the waves of joy that hit me as it sinks in that our children are now going to have the chance to grow up here and have the strong Montana roots that are such a unique and amazing gift.”
Her birth parents divorced when she was young. Both had remarried, Eric to Terri Elander and Rita to John Sommers-Flanagan, as Chelsea went through Paxson Elementary and Washington Middle schools before graduating from Hellgate High in 1995.
“I have lived vicariously through Chelsea her whole life,” said Terri Elander, a longtime public relations and tour marketing director for Missoula Community and Missoula Children’s Theater. “When she was in fifth grade she very much wanted to be a doctor, and that’s what she decided to do. She always made interesting, exciting, bold choices in her life, and we just enjoy her adventures and visits and try to support them.”
Chelsea Elander spent the fall after high school as an intern in Washington, D.C. At the time she was the youngest intern U.S. Senator Max Baucus had ever had.
“She kind of took the place by storm,” Eric Elander recalled. “They had a real respect for her, which was interesting for someone her age.”
His daughter’s college options boiled down to two — Dartmouth and Montana State.
“We let Chelsea make the decision, and she chose MSU,” Eric said. “I think she bought into the idea that if she worked hard it wouldn’t be nearly as expensive and she could get just as good an education and have as many opportunities there. It worked out.”
Chelsea Elander met Bodnar in the early 2000s at the University of Oxford in England. Both were there on Rhodes scholarships, he from Pennsylvania via the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, she from Missoula by way of Montana State University in Bozeman.
The Bodnars married in Coeur d’Alene in December 2005. Chelsea was finishing her last year at Harvard Medical School. Seth had just returned from Iraq, where he commanded a 40-man infantry rifle platoon in training and counterinsurgency operations.
Twins Margaret and Davis were born to the Bodnars in 2010 in New York, where Seth was an assistant professor of economics at West Point. Chelsea, a fellow at the Institute of Medicine, worked in pediatric health care quality. She spent much of her pregnancy commuting between New York and Washington, D.C, “mostly throwing up in a garbage can at every station along the way,” she said.
Their third child, Nora, came along in October 2013 in Erie, Pennsylvania, after her husband had joined the private ranks of General Electric.
Chelsea Bodnar’s stepfather, John Sommers-Flanagan, is a clinical psychologist and professor of counselor education at UM. Her mother, Rita, is a professor emeritus at UM and lives on the ranch in Absarokee that her great-grandparents homesteaded.
Bodnar takes her station as a fifth-generation Montanan to heart. Though her children were born far away, her mother brought a jar of dirt from Montana into the delivery room for each “so I could say that my kids were born on Montana soil,” Chelsea said. “I really didn’t want to break the line of native Montanans.”
“They are amazing parents in that they are so engaged with the children,” Terri Elander said. “Chelsea had that growing up, an only child for most of the time with four parents. They have such grit. They’re raising their children to be strong, independent, thoughtful thinkers who have fun.”
“They’re both really smart, really intelligent, and they’re both really nice,” Eric Elander said. “I’ve listened to Chelsea talk about Seth and, besides the fact that she thinks he’s pretty good-looking, she talks a lot about how hard it is for people to get a picture of the whole concept of being a servant leader like he is. She said people are just really going to be surprised.”
Chelsea Bodnar founded Ohana Pediatrics, described on its website as "a pediatric virtual care platform that builds communities of practicing, local docs to extend after hours care options."
Bodnar said Ohana's goal is "helping the best pediatricians, the ones whose parents already trust when they have questions about the health of their children, to find new ways to use technology to work together, supporting each other as well as their patients.”
Even though her family lived in Florida at the time, “I thought of the doctors in Montana as the perfect group to pilot a collaborative concept,” she said. “I am hopelessly optimistic about the social fabric of the state.”
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana and Medicaid have pledged their support “to bring Ohana to life for families in Montana,” Bodnar said. “I have just struggled to find the right funding sources for a double bottom-line venture like this.”
Seth Bodnar’s name first surfaced as a finalist for the UM president position in September. A month earlier Chelsea Bodnar left the kids with him to travel back in her hometown, where she was a featured speaker at the Last Best Conference at the Wilma Theater after first stopping at Fort Peck to work on children’s health issues.
She spoke, Bodnar said, about the challenges of being an established pediatrician and “taking a leap into the world of entrepreneurship, where it’s far more difficult to understand and define success. I felt I had to be a lot braver and more creative.”