Missoula lost more than a retired professor when Michael Kreisberg died hiking this week in Crazy Canyon southeast of Missoula.
Those who knew him described Kreisberg, 78, as a vital man who loved to teach a broad range of topics in the humanities at the University of Montana but also whose work with the Missoula Food Bank, his social activism, and his omnipresence on the trails around town were part of the fabric of the community.
“He was a wonderful human and a decent man,” said Margaret Kingsland, former director of Humanities Montana who counted Kreisberg “a good family friend for over 40 years.”
Kreisberg’s body was discovered roughly a mile north of the Crazy Canyon trailhead late Wednesday afternoon after an intensive air and ground search that started the previous evening.
As was his wont, Kreisberg had gone hiking during the day with his dog Misha. His wife, Deirdre Black, reported him missing when he didn’t return to their home on West Second Street West.
A Two Bear Air helicopter from Whitefish spotted Kreisberg with Misha nestled against him, according to Capt. Bill Burt, who heads up the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue team.
“He wasn’t really on the trail, which was consistent with what he normally did,” Undersheriff Rich Maricelli said Thursday afternoon. “He kind of forged his own path.”
While the cause of death isn’t official, Maricelli said it “doesn’t look like anything other than what it appears ... natural causes.”
Kreisberg grew up in New York City and headed west after high school. He attended Reed College of Portland for a couple of years before moving to Missoula in 1964.
“I believe he was a student in English,” said Phil Fandozzi, a retired UM professor who was coordinator of the popular western humanities program in which Kreisberg taught from the late 1980s until 2007.
As a student, Kreisberg left Montana to study at what’s now the UC San Diego in California under Herbert Marcuse, a German-American philosopher, sociologist and political theorist.
“I think that made a great impact on him,” Fandozzi said. “Michael was always a social activist, and I think that he brought that into his teaching.”
Kreisberg returned to Missoula from San Diego and “might have even got his undergraduate degree from the university,” said Kingsland. “My recollection is he had done graduate work and had everything but his dissertation.”
In a letter of recommendation to the university in 1987 asking that Kreisberg be hired to teach in the humanities program, Kingsland wrote that he had “performed yeoman’s duties for the Montana Committee for the Humanities” for 10 years.
“Michael is a generalist in the best sense of the term,” she wrote. “His training is broad and he reads widely. He has evaluated programs on topics ranging from land use to 'War and Peace' to contemporary German literature.”
The western humanities program that started in the 1980s grew to as many as 500 students.
“Michael was an essential part of that," Pandozzi said. "One of the things he (taught) wase Judaic tradition. He was Jewish and had strong sense of Jewish scriptures."
Kreisberg taught it in his classes and in lectures to the whole program.
"Sometimes we had 400 students in one auditorium, then we’d break up during the week into smaller sections," recalled Pandozzi.
Kreisberg spent his entire teaching career at UM as an adjunct professor.
“That should be honored,” said Kingsland. “He wasn’t in a tenured track position. He just loved to teach.”
Years before he retired, Kreisberg was a fixture as a Friday morning stocker at the Missoula Food Bank, a volunteer job he performed “like clockwork” until last Friday, according to food bank director Aaron Brock.
He’d also spend time gleaning leftovers from the Saturday markets downtown and delivering them to the food bank.
“He was an institution here for more than 20 years. I think it was 23 years,” Brock said. “Michael knew everybody, he would talk to everybody, and everyone knew him.”
Brock said even as a shelf stocker, Kreisberg “was passionate and sort of a social justice warrior.”
“For him social justice meant showing up, it meant pitching in, so there were times when he was sort of good-naturedly frustrated with the rest of the world for not doing what he thought was its share,” said Brock, who last spoke with Kreisberg last Friday.
The Montana Public Radio fundraising drive had received donations from only 6,000 people across the state.
“He was fired up that more people don’t contribute to that thing,” said Brock.
While his death came as a shock, it surprised no one who knew Kreisberg how it happened.
“He was a ferocious hiker and he was in wonderful shape, extremely fit,” said Kingsland. “He would go hiking many days a week up the riverbank trail and up Pattee Canyon. And he always had a dog with him. He loved dogs, he loved his wife, he loved the city. He walked the talk.”