Many Montanans who changed the way we study, see, and strive for the places we hold dear left for the Big Sky in 2017.
George Dennison spent 20 years leading the University of Montana from 1990 to 2010. He died on January 3 at 81 of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Known also for predawn 4-mile runs, occasional banjo-playing and eating just one meal a day, Dennison put lasting marks on Montana’s higher education system. He oversaw a period where UM’s enrollment grew 50 percent, and its endowment went from $17.3 million to $120 million. The campus added 1.3 million square feet of new construction. The Grizzly football team never had a losing season during his administration, and played seven national championship games, winning two.
Blackfeet Chief Earl Old Person gave Dennison the name “Fast Buffalo Horse” in recognition of his work supporting Native American students. He also earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Missoula before completing a doctorate at the University of Washington.
Frank McCauley earned a flyover by four F-15 jets when he was laid to rest on June 16 in Missoula’s Western Montana State Veterans Cemetery. The man believed to be the oldest World War II flying ace was 100 when he died on June 1. He flew a P-47 Thunderbolt fighter plane escorting B-17 bombers with the 56th Fighter Group in Europe under Missoula native Col. Hubert “Hub” Zemke.
On his last mission, he was credited with shooting down at least three German airplanes attacking a set of American bombers on Oct. 14, 1943. He earned his Ace distinction for defeating at least 5 ½ enemy planes, as well as the Silver Star, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, four Air Medals and the Congressional Gold Medal. He went on to train hundreds of new combat pilots after his active duty tour ended.
After a peacetime career in construction, McCauley settled in the Bitterroot Valley. He received full military graveside honors from both the Army and Air Force. The four-jet salute was an honor accorded only a select few veterans such as three- and four-star generals, Medal of Honor recipients, prisoners of war, and aviators like McCauley with at least one aerial victory.
Bob Ream fought for Montana’s wild places as an educator, a legislator, a backpacker and an agitator.
Early in his 28-year career at the University of Montana, Ream set up the first reporting system for gray wolves dispersing south from Canada along the border of Glacier National Park. He was instrumental in the effort to reintroduce wolves into the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. In the Legislature, he was chief sponsor of the state’s stream access law, restitution requirements for wildlife poaching, and cooperative efforts between state and federal agencies on Superfund cleanup projects. He chaired both the state Fish and Wildlife Commission and the Montana Democratic Party at various times.
Ream died March 24 of pancreatic cancer. He was 80.
Tom Ulrich may have captured so many outstanding wildlife pictures because he was so hard to see.
The quiet West Glacier photographer made a career of bringing back images of animals few could find, let alone catch in the act of their distinctive behavior. National Geographic and Audubon magazines were just two of the many outlets for his more than 600,000 images. His skill brought him assignments to New Zealand to film car-vandalizing kea parrots and beyond the Arctic Circle for polar bears. After five consecutive seasons shooting the same mother red-necked grebe near Whitefish, she let him get his canoe within a foot of her nest.
Ironically, Ulrich’s eyesight was so bad, he couldn’t pass a lifeguard test in high school because he couldn’t see the pool. Nevertheless, he swam well enough to get a full-ride scholarship to Mount Carmel High School in Illinois and set records that remain unbroken there, according to life partner Linda Martin.
Ulrich died on Feb. 10 of cancer. He was 68.
William “Willy” Tilton strode Missoula’s stages for years, and probably built most of the scenery.
The fixture of city theater and arts activity starred in local productions of Peter Pan, Pippin, The Wiz, Godspell, 1776, Frankenstein, Greater Tuna and Swinging on a Star, among others. As a producer, he helped found the Montana Players acting troupe with Brien Sanke and Linda Eichwald. The private company took plays on the road for nine years starting in 1988.
At his day job, Tilton was a builder with Loken Construction. He also made dollhouses, parade puppets, theater sets and gardens. In his obituary, friend Mike DeMeng described Tilton thus: “Every so often, the world creates a really, really amazing person, who is in the world to show us how the sun still shines behind a gray sky. The moment I met Will I knew he was one of those people. A wonderful man who made the world better just by being in it.”
Tilton died on Dec. 15 at 64 of complications from early-onset Alzheimers disease.
Nobody elected John Frederick “Mayor of Polebridge.” He just seemed to be the one for the job.
Frederick helped found the North Fork Preservation Association in 1982, and wound up serving as its president for the next 30-some years. In that time, he congealed the North Fork’s 50-mile-long, unincorporated community into a relatively harmonious voice on matters like opposition to paving the North Fork Road, protecting the North Fork of the Flathead River, maintaining trails and fire lookouts and historic buildings in the Whitefish Range and Glacier National Park, and recovery from various catastrophic wildfires.
When Cenex proposed drilling for oil and gas along the park border, Frederick helped lead a legal challenge that clarified the Montana public’s constitutional right to know and participate in state land use decisions. When a Canadian coal firm announced plans to mine in the headwaters of the Flathead River in the 1980s, Frederick bought stock in the corporation and spent six years attending its shareholder meetings, making motions against the project.
Frederick was most commonly known as the host of the North Fork Hostel, also called the Square Peg Ranch. For decades he rented rooms to passing tourists and long-term wildlife biologists. He died Nov. 15 of bladder cancer at 74.
Andrew Schneider had only lived in western Montana for eight months, but his reporting on the devastating public health effects of the asbestos contamination at a vermiculite mine in Libby influenced policies in the state and the nation for two decades.
As a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Schneider disclosed that scores of Libby miners and their families had been sickened or killed by the asbestos fibers they breathed or brought home on their clothing. His reporting made global headlines and resulted in an EPA Superfund cleanup that continues today as Libby's death toll continues to rise.
He co-authored “An Air That Kills: How the Asbestos Poisoning of Libby, Montana Uncovered a National Scandal,” published by Putnam in 2004. An updated version, “An Air that Still Kills,” was honored in 2016 as iBook of the Year by iBA.
He died Feb. 17 of heart failure caused by cancer. He was 74.