MISSOULA - On June 18, 2008, a sunshine-filled morning, Mark J. Behan was jogging on his favorite trail on Blue Mountain when he suffered a massive heart attack, collapsed and died instantly. Mark lived his life to the fullest and couldn't have orchestrated a better exit for himself.
Mark, 77, a University of Montana professor emeritus of biological sciences, was born Jan. 17, 1931, in Denver, Colo., to Eileen Mary Cannon and Mark Anthony Behan. In 1953, he received a bachelor of arts degree in biology, chemistry, and education from the University of Denver. Five years later, in 1958, Mark earned a master's in science from the University of Wyoming, Laramie, and in 1963, a Ph.D. in plant physiology and ecology from the University of Washington, Seattle.
Mark's success in college and graduate school came as a surprise to some of his family who characterized his academic performance in high school as "unremarkable." But Mark later saw education as a way out of his Irish working-class background. He enrolled in college preparatory classes at night at the University of Colorado, and subsequently earned top scores on the entrance exams for the University of Denver. From then on, his love of learning and reading were lifelong. He had a deep need to pass on what he learned though teaching and service.
In 1954, Mark married Darlyne Carr and raised three sons, Christopher, Timon and Conan. Mark and Darlyne later divorced.
In 1954, Mark joined the United States Army, where he served in the Counter Intelligence Corps. The investigative skills he learned in the CIC held him in good stead throughout his life, particularly in his academic research and in his personal pursuit of his Irish heritage. Proud of his military service, he also was a member of the Colorado National Guard, which included training with the 10th Mountain Division.
Mark's love of the outdoors began in childhood, fostered by the Boy Scouts and by a church camp run by the Catholic Diocese of Denver in Estes Park, Colo. Altar boys could stay free at the church camp for one week. Mark washed dishes to pay the $15 required for each additional week. That lifetime passion was passed to his sons and grandsons in the form of backpack trips throughout western Montana, cross-country and downhill skiing days, and long canoe trips.
An avid skier, Mark began ski patrolling in 1953, and was an active member of the Northern Division Ski Patrol all his life, serving with patrols in Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. He was a familiar presence to skiers at Missoula's Marshall Mountain and Snowbowl, and also at Discovery Basin. He was chairman of the board of Discovery at the time of its development, helping with slope design and financing for the area. He also served a term as director of the National Ski Patrol, and was an officer of Snowbowl and the Missoula Ski Club during the 1967 National Alpine Championships. He taught search and rescue classes and certification courses in emergency winter care and avalanche awareness and safety. At the time of his death, he was a member of the Bitterroot Ski Patrol.
Mark also was an accomplished hunter who taught hunter safety and created Montana's Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department's online hunter education course.
Mark was passionate about researching his Irish heritage. He made three visits to Dublin's genealogy research center where he located previously unknown relatives whom he later visited, and where he found the record of his grandfather's birth. That birth certificate enabled him to obtain, in 2000, dual U.S. and Irish citizenships and an Irish passport. He was a decade-long member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and marched in Missoula's St. Patrick's Day parade every year.
In 1960, Mark joined The University of Montana's department of botany faculty. His academic work took him all over the world. In 1982, he received a Fulbright grant to teach at Tribuhvan University in Katmandu, Nepal, and returned to Nepal in 1984 as a USAID consultant. He also created a new curriculum and taught for one year at the Pakistan Forest Institute in Peshawar. For 12 years he was a consultant for the Bombay Natural History Society Grasslands Project, traveling throughout India as an advisor for scientific projects and academic development. During his last position in Nepal he met his soul mate, Jackie Cohen, whom he later married.
Besides academic international travel, he and Jackie traveled to many parts of the globe, especially Asian countries, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Borneo (where they climbed Mount Kinabalu), and Singapore. They traveled the Trans- Siberian Railroad from Beijing to Budapest, before the break-up of the USSR. They later traveled in Central America.
Mark was physically active to the end, jogging, skiing, hiking and backpacking. When the load became too heavy, he purchased and trained a llama to carry the gear. Wherever Mark went in the back country, he would run into former students of Mark's who always resurrected some story he had told them about plant life. Mark's love of the outdoors included a lifelong devotion to environmental causes, including his position as chairman of the Montana Environmental Information Center Board of Directors.
A child of the Great Depression, Mark was a role model for frugality and cost-cutting habits. Every year he tended a generous garden and canned and froze food for the winter. He taught himself cabinet making, and made furniture, cabinets and built a cabin with his family at Southern Cross near Georgetown Lake, from which he was able to enjoy skiing, hiking, hunting and fishing.
Mark was preceded in death by his parents, and by a brother, Patrick, and sisters, JoAnn and Mary. He is survived by his wife, Jackie, and his three sons, Christopher (Karen), Conan (Fe), both of Missoula, and Timon ( Kim) of Spokane, and three grandchildren, Collin, Braden and Nathen.
Mark thoroughly loved his sons and grandsons and felt fulfilled when they accompanied him skiing and backpacking. Mark loved laughter, and with a twinkle in his eye, he entertained all with his Irish gift of story-telling.
Services will be Tuesday, June 24, at 10:30 a.m. at St. Francis Xavier Church. A celebration of Mark's life will be that same day from 4 to 8 p.m. at Marshall Ski area, where people are asked to bring a salad, fruit or dessert as well as personal remembrances of Mark's life to share. Burgers and beverages will be provided.
Donations in Mark's memory may be made to Jesuit International Missions Attn: Jesuit Mission Nepal 2059 N, Sedgwick St. Chicago, IL 60414; the Montana Food Bank Network; the Poverello Center, or to an environmental advocacy organization that best reflects Mark to the donor.