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President George Dennison was a force at The University of Montana, a relentless advocate for higher education, and a scholar who knew how to laugh at himself.

He was a banjo player and disciplined runner, a man unafraid to tell students and superiors alike to get out of his way.

From 1990 to 2010, Dennison led UM, his alma mater, pulling the flagship campus into the modern day and bucking the trend for a presidential term.

In 1963, Time Magazine called UM "the graveyard of presidents" because the average tenure here was roughly three years, said Harry Fritz, retired history professor from UM.

Now, it's around six years.

Dennison, who died Tuesday of complications from non-Hodgkin lymphoma, is the longest serving president in UM history, having led for 20 years.

"So he beat the odds, and I think the reason that he was able to beat the odds was that he was a successful administrator," said Fritz, friend of Dennison for 60 years.

He grew enrollment nearly 50 percent, including Native American enrollment, and, Fritz said, lost no programs.

"The School of Pharmacy was on the list to be closed, and now look at it," he said.

Dennison, a UM graduate himself, also increased the campus endowment from $17.3 million to $120 million.

He famously built buildings during his tenure, and the "edifice complex" added 1.3 million square feet on campus, or 20 percent more usable space.

"He built the modern campus. And I also point out that he never suffered through a losing football season. He built Griz Nation," Fritz said.

Tuesday, friends, colleagues and former students recalled Dennison as a pillar of strength, a fearless leader at UM, and a pioneer in higher education.

"I think one of his defining characteristics was high-voltage energy," said UM history professor Richard Drake. "He had tremendous energy. I was in awe of it, really."

In 2010 when Dennison announced his retirement, then-commissioner of higher education Sheila Stearns said she believed he would be remembered as "the most significant president in the history of UM."

"He just always not only had the sheer guts and will to be a strong leader for 20 years – and how many people can do that? – but also, he had optimistic and creative streaks in him that really just moved things along," said Stearns, now interim UM president, on Tuesday.

Fritz said he got to know Dennison when he'd see him playing banjo in a club downtown under what became The Bodega. A 1962 photo shows Dennison playing electric guitar with his college band, Starfires.

"He liked to think he was a singer," Fritz said. "I've seen him at karaoke."

***

Dennison, who came to UM after serving as provost at Western Michigan University, wasn't afraid of controversy and seemed as comfortable going toe to toe with students as he did with his superiors.

Early in his administration, students protested a housing shortage by building a shantytown on the Oval, but it didn't stay up long, Fritz said.

"Boy, he came down hard on that. He would have called in the bulldozers if they hadn't taken them down," Fritz said. "He could be somewhat authoritarian, but he got the job done."

Commissioner Clayton Christian said he was thrilled when he was first appointed as a member of the Montana Board of Regents, and he met with Dennison for words of wisdom.

"Now that I'm a board member, what can I do?" Christian said.

The president replied with a twinkle in his eye: 

"You can stay out of my way."

Dennison embodied civil discourse and respectful dialogue, Christian said. Over the years, they had good debates, and they could both leave a room having fully expressed their opinions, Christian said.

"I think that's part of what leadership is about," Christian said.

Drake, history professor and coordinator of the presidential lecture series, agreed Dennison didn't mince words. His ability to be forthright served him well as head of UM, he said; he wanted people to be frank with him, and he returned the favor.

"One of the things I most valued about George is that he didn't pussyfoot around with you," Drake said. "There was sort of a directness that I thought was one of his major areas of strength as a leader."

***

It may have offended at times. Dennison pushed an unsuccessful proposal to develop the University Golf Course into a retirement community, and he was frank about his views that the people who used the course weren't "serious golfers."

"Nobody plays golf down here," he said. "They just walk around and talk to each other and hit the ball occasionally." 

Ashleen Williams was the last president of the Associated Students of the University of Montana under Dennison, and she remembers that he had tense moments with students but was able to collaborate with them as well, and also laugh at himself.

"He was open to hearing the facts and the evidence we presented, which was good," Williams said.

When he retired, she had booked a meeting with him in order to stall him before a surprise party in his honor. At the meeting, Dennison told her how he'd gotten the nickname "King George," and he said it had meant to be an insult, but he ended up seeing it as a humorous moniker.

Williams is fuzzy on the details, but the nickname came about during a conflict about a student athletics fee. As a joke, she said, the students made him a six-pack of homemade beer with a "King George's Brew" label.

She recently returned to the United States after being abroad for several years, and Dennison was one of the only people who sent her a card upon her return. She doesn't know how he got her address, but he praised her new position as a Barksdale Fellow and adjunct professor at the University of Mississippi.

"He wrote me a congratulatory note as well in a typical terse manner," Williams said.

Sometimes, his notes were as simple as, "I trust it goes well." 

Former UM President Royce Engstrom laughed at one lesson he learned from Dennison, too. When Engstrom was provost at UM during his first commencement ceremony, he struggled to properly place the hoods on honorary doctorates, he said.

"George promptly came down in between the commencement ceremonies and gave me a one-on-one lesson on how to put a hood on," said Engstrom, who stepped down last month.

Dennison was a pillar of higher education not only in Montana, but in the country, and he was a lifelong educator and advocate for the doors that higher education opens, Engstrom said.

"I really admire George and was so proud to have the opportunity to work with him," he said.

One alum remembered how Dennison took students seriously as well. On Earth Day in 2010, the president announced UM's commitment to becoming carbon-neutral by 2020, said Zack Porter, then a student advocating for the cause.

Dennison wasn't obligated to sit down with students, but he listened, and he ended up putting his stamp on a landmark goal for UM and sustainability, Porter said. Dennison was one of the first university presidents nationwide to commit to the carbon neutrality deadline, he said.

"It was one of the most aggressive timelines that any president committed to in the whole nation," he said. 

Dennison earned his bachelor of arts in history with highest honors and a history master's degree from UM; he earned a doctorate from the University of Washington. He worked 18 years at Colorado State University in various positions before going to Michigan and then UM.

***

Dennison was an infamous runner, and Drake said his commitment to it illustrated the way he approached work. He would get up at 3:30 a.m. to run, be at work by 6:30 a.m., and clear out his email by 8 a.m.

"It was part of his discipline. George brought a very strong work ethic to his job," Drake said. "I've known very few people who could match the work ethic that he exhibited on a daily basis.

"I think his constitution was to keep fit, to get out and run every day, and come to the office in shape and ready to go. And it was kind of an inspiration for everyone else around him, I thought."

Among the tangible legacies Dennison leaves behind are the many buildings that went up or were renovated on campus during his tenure. Among them are the Davidson Honors College, the Gallagher Business Building, the Phyllis J. Washington Education Center, Don Anderson Hall, and The Payne Family Native American Center, and three expansions of the Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

Some faculty questioned whether the building spree took Dennison's attention away from other matters. When the president retired, history professor Mike Mayer told the Missoulian that Dennison had been criticized for his focus on facilities.

"We needed some buildings, but I wish we'd seen as much energy toward some academic concerns," Mayer said at the time.

But one building, the Payne Family Native American Center – housing the Department of Native American Studies and American Indian Student Services – exemplifies his support for Montana's largest minority. Higher education was emphasizing diversity and minority representation during Dennison's tenure, and Dennison, in turn, strongly supported Native Americans, Fritz said.

"I think getting funding for building for the Native American Studies program was one of the best things he did," he said.

For his support for Native American students, Blackfeet Chief Earl Old Person gave him the name "Fast Buffalo Horse," according to Dennison's obituary.

Interim President Stearns said that while many people will remember Dennison for his expansion of the physical complex, he grew UM financially and programmatically as well. He pushed outreach by the Mansfield Center in its mission to expand the understanding between the United States and Asia; he propelled fundraising for scholarships; and he pushed all the campuses under UM's umbrella to be as good as they could be.

Dennison was competitive, and he had a sense of pride in UM, she said.

"I think that he will be known for being both a programmatic as well as an infrastructure leader. And I attribute that to the fact that he was a scholar. First and foremost, he really was a scholar," Stearns said.

In fact, Stearns competed against Dennison for the president's job, and at the time, people wondered if she'd stay. She was vice president, and not every incoming president would be secure enough to have his second-in-command remain, but Stearns told people not to worry.

"If I don't get it, and you hire somebody who is really strong and just a good, confident leader, they will never need to be threatened by me," said Stearns, who retired as commissioner of higher education but is filling in as interim UM president during a search for a permanent president.

"They will see me as an ally and a full partner. And that's what happened."

Stearns met with Dennison before she signed on to take the interim post at UM; she said he admired and respected Engstrom, and he was also sincere and enthusiastic about her taking on the role.

"We were colleagues and dear friends, and I just think he defines what an exemplary successful college president could do," Stearns said.

Dennison had recently published a book called "Montana's Pioneer Naturalist: Morton J. Elrod," and he earlier published "The Dorr War: Republicanism on Trial, 1831-1861." He was working on a book about the history of UM.

Drake said Dennison may have been roughly halfway done with the book, although he's not certain. Fritz was hoping to get an update on the project this month; the two had talked about Fritz picking up where Dennison had left off, but Dennison had told him he would beat cancer, and they'd dine in January and decide how to proceed.

"We were going to get together this month with good Scotch, fine steaks and excellent wine for dinner," Fritz said. "That was our plan. That was our plan, and it's not going to happen."

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University of Montana, higher education