DRUMMOND – Jim Oly was a happy man. The “low-mileage” Subaru he bought for $500 is back from the repair shop with a new radiator. It has barely 245,000 miles on it and a stereo system that works.
“So I can play my John Denver CDs,” Oly said last week. “It’s the little things.”
Most folks up and down Granite County know Jimmy Oly, or at least have seen his handiwork. He’s the guy who spent countless hours last year lighting up the ‘D’ above Drummond with solar lights – first 14 of them, then 400 after Doug Graybeal of Hall found out what Oly was doing and started a snowball of donations.
They still look pretty good as you’re rolling eastward through town on Interstate 90, if Oly does say so himself.
The snowball rolled.
Oly turned his sights to other letters on other hills. Now the “G” for Granite above Philipsburg, an “H” for Hall, and the “L” for Lincoln all shine after dark due to Oly’s handiwork.
Superior, you’re next. Two of Oly’s eight siblings graduated from Superior High years ago and he feels a connection.
“That’s my next big adventure if I can get them to agree to it,” he said.
Oly, 51, was born and raised in Drummond and commits random acts of kookiness, most of them kind.
Tom and Susan Fisher live a couple of blocks away. Tom, who’s 70, had open-heart surgery two Octobers ago. It laid him up all winter.
“Jimmy would stop by two or three times a week and ask if there was anything we needed him to do,” Fisher said.
He'd shovel the deck or perform whatever small task was called for, then turn and be on his way.
“I tried to give him money or cookies or whatever and he’s kicking and screaming not to take money," Tom Fisher said. "He’s got a heart of gold.”
“One of my favorite people,” agreed Nikki Graybeal of Hall. “Jimmy’s very kind, and he’s full of a little bit of mischief, which I admire. For years I’ve called him Granite County’s Lower Valley leprechaun.”
Which helps explain Oly’s one-man St. Patrick’s Day parade. He dons green, jumps on the Green Flash – the decked-out lawnmower tractor that replaced a bicycle in recent years – and drives through town handing out candy. Butte, eat your heart out.
“I’ve almost been shot a couple of times,” admits Oly, who once or twice a week will put on his conehead and some other wacky get-up, fire up the Green Flash and drive through town for kicks and giggles “just to stir things up.”
“Not everybody appreciates him, how wonderful he is,” Graybeal said. “They think he’s more of an oddity. He’s not. He’s what we all wish we were.”
School starts Monday in Drummond and it was coming on fast Thursday. Oly has bounced from job to job, but for the past year he’s been on the maintenance staff at Drummond School – “Jacques Coustodian,” he calls it.
His immediate task was a rush job, repainting the school’s blue-and-white walls. Oly hadn’t had much painting experience but found he enjoyed it. Nonetheless, he took time to give a tour of some of his off-beat creations around town – Trooper Park up Edwards Gulch, the Black Bridge Trail and other improvements along the river in the town campground, and the “storied” Redneck Rest Area three miles up Helmville Road.
“I hope GQ doesn’t call me up,” Oly quipped, as he posed at the latter on his roadside porcelain throne.
It was pure Oly inspiration that hit when he spied the toilet seat in the town dump. He thought it would be funny to display it along a road and “have a little rest area somewhere.” The road through the canyon to Helmville was the perfect place, and one thing led to another.
The central attraction is the toilet seat mounted on a white bucket filled with rocks and sometimes, ahem, other things. A wooden sign routed by his friend Shannon Wortman proclaims you’re in the right place. Next to the toilet, in the shade of an old fir tree and mere feet from the paved road, there’s a toilet paper dispenser and a beer can holder that used to hold toothbrushes. It was the closest thing Oly could find at Goodwill. It's attached to a fence pole that’s anchored by a car wheel and illuminated by a single solar light. There were more but they've disappeared.
A bucket filled with plastic flowers is generally in some state of dishevelment. Bears, Oly thinks.
The whole contraption puts smiles on the faces of passers-by – "especially the bikers," he said. That's the point of this and most other projects he embarks on, like the Christmas bulbs that pop up in the canyon and elsewhere. Ornaments hang from a tree between lanes of Interstate 90 toward Phosphate.
"I was just thinking about the truck drivers that can’t be home for Christmas," Oly explained. "They could see that Christmas tree and it might bring a little smile to their face and maybe think about their family and stuff."
There’s a serious side to Trooper Park, up Edwards Gulch past the Drummond football field. The creek was down to a late-summer trickle.
Maybe eight years ago Oly's life hit a rough patch. Youngest of nine children, he had lost his father and a brother in a short span of time when he was 14. In 2007, his brother Les and his elderly mother passed away within a short time of each other, and he also lost a beloved dog.
"I was just kind of depressed and different things, and I didn’t ever want to go on any type of medication or any of that stuff, you know?" he said.
Oly first tried out his idea of a memorial park of sorts on the Mentzer Ranch where he was working. Later he got permission from the landowner of the Edwards Gulch property, where he played as a child. He began installing trails, benches and oddities, defining trails with flat stones gathered from around the Willow Creek reservoir and other vicinities, and poles from the scrap heap of the local post and pole plant.
"I don’t know," he said. "I just started doing this and it took my mind off some of the sadness I had going on.
He named the retreat for Trooper, his chocolate Lab and pitbull cross. There's Trooper Tavern, and Lovers Leap, and a tribute to fallen soldiers. Oly’s favorite spot in Trooper Park overlooks the creek and a pretty slice of the gulch. He’s placed an old easy chair up there.
“You can kind of sit down, look around and not say nothing,” he said. “Normally the water’s running so if you want to come up and read a book or anything like that … it’s kind of nice.”
“I used to be addicted to the hokey-pokey but I turned myself around,” Oly says out of the blue.
Or rather the orange. That’s the color of the aged Chevy truck he drives around town, with “The Orange Pumpkin” painted in black on both doors. He got it in Bozeman, and had a heck of time getting it home. The driver’s side door kept flinging open over the passes.
Or the pink. That’s the color of the Mary Kay Cadillac he bought because he “thought it was kind of funny.” It’s for sale on the side of Drummond’s main street.
Oly is all about frogs and birdhouses, and the magical healing powers of duct tape.
“I’ve got birdhouses all over. People die and I make a birdhouse and put their name on it and stick it up,” he said.
He said he painted a previous truck "mostly with duct tape" and called it “The Kerminator.” A toy Kermit the Frog was mounted up front. One night as Oly's 50th birthday approached, Kermit was stolen and held for ransom while he was tending bar at the Roughstock Saloon.
“There were pictures on Facebook with his hands tied, and they wanted $50,” he said. “This went on for, like, two months through the winter. They had Wanted signs up, all that stuff. Finally on my birthday they presented me back with my Kermit the Frog stuffed animal.”
“Don’t know if I told you. I just won that big Iron Man competition down in Missoula,” Oly said. “Did about 20 shirts in a half-hour.”
Graybeal recalled the time she was visiting with Oly in a Drummond restaurant. He kept fiddling with something on his lap that she couldn’t see.
“When we were finished he had a paper rose that he made out of a napkin,” she said. “He gave it to me in a very sweet way and just walked off.
"He's not only modest but it's like he develops amnesia about himself that anything he does is never worth noting.”
For years Oly has donned a ragged red suit held together with safety pins and, yes, duct tape and played Santa Claus at Christmas in the Drummond and Hall schools. This winter, unbeknownst to him, an impressively large group of locals, along with the town council and community Chamber of Commerce, launched a fundraiser.
In late March, Carrie McClure and Chelle Schumann presented a stunned Oly with a brand new Santa suit. Tim Allen, head of the Chamber, reported the reaction in the Flint Creek Courier.
“Oly, who is normally armed with a handful of good jokes and one-liners, was speechless when surprised with the new suit,” Allen wrote.
Oly is touched by letters he's received from local students thanking him for lighting the "D” and Trooper Park and, maybe, for the candy he slips them when their teachers aren’t looking.
Drummond holds a Kiddie Parade each July on the day before the Kiwanis PRCA Rodeo. The theme of last year’s parade was “Heroes.” Children marched dressed as Superman “or whatever the current ones are,” Graybeal said.
Leading the parade was a young boy on a small tractor painted orange, with "The Orange Pumpkin" emblazoned on the side.
“He was Jim Oly,” said Graybeal. “Doesn’t that tell you something?
“There is the beautiful part of a child, the innocence of looking at the world with bright, sweet eyes. That," said Graybeal, "is Jimmy.”
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