Coming HomeBy Michael Moore
Susan Roberts cried all the way from Pennsylvania to Missoula. It was 1979, and she’d just finished her senior year at a small, rural high school in northwest Pennsylvania. She’d attended her senior party, but then left quickly to join her parents in Missoula. They’d moved here the year before, allowing Susan to remain back east with friends so her senior year wouldn’t be disrupted. But after that “it was a given that I’d come to Montana immediately,” she recalls. “It was just assumed that I would go to the University here, and that’s what happened.”
Since then, she’s spent a half-dozen years in Seattle, but it’s Missoula she and her husband, Kent ’87, call home.
“No matter where we go, I think we’ll always have a place in Montana,” she says. “It’s safe to say I’ve had no regrets about living here, none at all.”
Neither has Marcia Holland, who nearly spent a career working in law in Alaska, only to return to Missoula, where she’d studied political science at UM during the mid-1970s.
And neither have Jim and Kathy O’Day, who returned to Missoula after years of running a small newspaper in northern Montana. Jim, of course, is now UM’s athletic director, and he can’t think of anywhere else he’d rather be, even in the movable profession of college athletics.
“Well, it’s a profession where people come and go, but I can’t think of anyone luckier than me to have the job here,” O’Day says. “This community has been so good to us.”
The O’Days, the Robertses, and Holland have fallen all over again for the charms of the city they knew as collegians, a city that let them go once but has now called them home.
Often as not, they lived full, meaningful lives in their adopted towns, but Missoula and the University still exerted a magnetic pull on them. Their moves away were like a drift into increasingly distant orbits, with the reassuring knowledge that the mother ship could always bring them back.
“I still feel like we’ll travel when we’re retired, that we won’t be here all the time, but Missoula just has so many things going for it as a community that we’ll always be tied to it in some way,” says Susan Roberts, a 1984 accounting graduate.
Montana on her mind
Marcia Holland grew up in Butte, a boomtown where the bloom had gone off the rose.
She’d grown up working in her father’s law office and had always imagined herself as an attorney. She came to Missoula in 1972, a time when the town was still buzzing with the electric excitement of the late ’60s. Compared to Butte, Missoula seemed almost exotic, a place ready to move dynamically into its future rather than cling tightly to its past.
She finished her degree with plans to stay at UM for law school, but a more intoxicating detour presented itself, and she was off to the Midwest, where she enrolled at Chicago Kent School of Law.
“I really just went there for the adventure, as a chance to live someplace so different from where I came from,” Holland says.
For a while, the Windy City and the Midwest proved a perfect match, but the outdoors kept calling.
“I was doing a lot of stuff outdoors, but it wasn’t the same as it was in Montana,” she says.
She wanted to come back to Missoula then, but a job in Alaska presented a world of opportunity she couldn’t pass up.
“It seemed and felt so grand that I wanted to give it a try,” Holland says. “And I think it turned out to be a great place for me, but eventually I felt like Montana was the place to be.”
But for more than two decades, Alaska was everything Holland was looking for. She had a fulfilling career working for the state’s public defender system, a job that put her on airplanes that delivered her into small communities in the Alaskan bush. As part of her work, she also practiced appellate law before the Alaska Supreme Court in Anchorage.
She married a Superior Court judge named Chuck Pengilly and found herself deeply involved with her friends and community. She even found her life inextricably wedded to hockey, both as a player and as a hockey mom once she and Chuck had their son, Mick.
Oddly enough, that was one of her hesitations when the family talked about moving to Montana.
“I just wasn’t sure I’d be able to find what I had in Alaska with my friendships in hockey, and it actually worried me quite a bit,” Holland says.
Still, Montana was calling, so much so that for vacations the family often came here. Marcia also had taken a position on UM’s Alumni Association board, which provided the chance to return to Missoula a little more often.
“I know that sounds a bit strange, given what all Alaska has, but we found ourselves really enjoying Montana, and my husband was really pretty insistent that we move down here,” she says.
After a career as a judge, Chuck Pengilly wanted to delve a little more deeply into one of his other passions—mathematics.
“He really loved Missoula when we’d visit, and then a couple of years ago we heard about the ice rink and all the hockey in town, so it all seemed like it would work out,” she says.
Missoula wasn’t the same town she remembered, but in many ways it was better—more choices, more opportunity, more things to do. The family moved out to a new golf course development initially called Phantom Hills, now known as the Ranch, settling right in.
Holland is heavily involved in UM activities, her husband has been taking graduate school classes, and there’s more hockey than a woman can free up time to play.
“It’s been a little hard to get used to the traffic, but everything else has just been all we could have hoped for,” Holland says.
She was even able to keep her Alaska career going, doing contract work via the Internet for her old office and for an attorney in Juneau.
“I’ve kind of got the best of both worlds now,” she says. “I’ve made friends, found old friends from college, still have my work, and my family is happy.”
Family calls couple home
Kent and Susan Roberts met when she was a student at UM in the early 1980s. They both finished degrees at UM—she in accounting, he in computer science—but still opted to leave Missoula for a while to size up and take advantage of a larger city. In their case, that city was Seattle.
They’d given it a short try in the mid-1980s, but returned to Missoula. The next time out, they were both UM graduates with solid professions, and Seattle was more welcoming.
“Oh, we had friends, we had a boat where we could get out on the sound, and it was really a great place professionally,” Susan Roberts says.
Still, when it came time to raise a family, Susan and Kent thought back to Missoula, where their parents and many of their relatives still lived.
“Family was a pretty strong draw for us, but we also felt like Missoula had a lot to offer in terms of raising a kid in a good atmosphere,” Kent says.
Kent now works at St. Patrick Hospital, while Susan, after a stint at UM and the Missoula Federal Credit Union, is in business with her sister.
Along with another partner, they run Profiles International, which does credit and accounts receivable management for transportation firms. They employ more than fifty people, and while the business can certainly grow, Susan makes sure she has time for family, traveling, and living the good life in Montana.
They recently returned from Africa, where a man told Susan that while Americans have all the watches, Africans have all the time. It made an impression.
“I’m sure I could work harder, work nights, work weekends, but we’re working to enjoy our lives and do some good,” she says.
Summers mean spending time at Flathead Lake, but come September the weekends are reserved for Grizzly football, another perk of life in Missoula.
“We’re season-ticket holders, and once they start playing, we’re pretty much done at the lake,” she says.
Missoula Housing Market Cools
By Patia Stephens
The housing bubble seems to have burst everywhere but here.
“The ex-Grizzlies hoping to escape high housing prices by returning to the Treasure State may be disappointed,” says Paul Polzin, director of UM’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.
Although recent home prices have decelerated slightly in Montana during the last quarter, Polzin says, they are still rising faster than the U.S. average—2.4 percent statewide versus 0.4 percent nationwide. Missoula prices have slowed a bit faster than Billings and Great Falls, though.
The median housing price in Missoula County reached $206,850 in 2006, according to the Missoula Organization of Realtors. That’s an increase of $20,000 over the previous year. It’s also more than Missoula’s typical household can afford: A family would have to earn $58,100 a year to pay for the median house, but the median income is only $43,200.
With high demand and limited supply in the affordable range, many Missoula households are being priced out of homeownership.
However, to those selling homes in states where incomes and housing prices are much higher, Montana may still look like a bargain. Homes in the $300,000-and-up category are plentiful in the hot housing markets of Missoula, Ravalli, Flathead, and Gallatin counties.
A Griz for life
Jim O’Day grew up in Cut Bank. Missoula wasn’t really part of his consciousness, at least not until he listened to UM play perennial basketball power UCLA in the NCAA tournament in 1975, the year he graduated from high school.
He’d been thinking about attending Carroll College, his dad’s alma mater, but a bout of food poisoning at a basketball camp there cured that itch. So off he went to Missoula, where he studied at UM’s well-respected journalism school. That was hardly a surprise—O’Day’s dad ran the Western Breeze, a twice-weekly paper in Cut Bank. Young Jim went off to work for the Kalispell Daily Inter Lake before eventually taking over his dad’s paper in 1982.
Still, Missoula was often on his mind, particularly after he started helping out with fundraising for Grizzly athletic scholarships.
“I was doing that for a while, but really seeing it as a dream that we could come back to Missoula,” O’Day says.
O’Day’s wife, Kathy, had attended the Vo-tech—now the UM College of Technology—and she, too, was interested in returning to Missoula.
Then came an opportunity to work with the UM Grizzly Athletic Association (now the Grizzly Scholarship Association). The O’Day’s oldest boys were in middle school, so the couple figured the time was ripe for a move.
“We just decided to take the leap of faith, and things have turned out very, very well,” Jim O’Day says.
With UM came Missoula, a place that even today makes O’Day feel vital.
“With all the kids coming to college, with all the arts, and the sports, and the outdoors, well, it just keeps you feeling young,” he says.
O’Day was working as the director of development for UM Intercollegiate Athletics in 2005 when Don Read, the legendary UM football coach, decided to step down as athletic director.
Athletic director wasn’t a job O’Day had ever aspired to—it wasn’t something he’d ever even dared consider—but Read pressed him to take the post.
“It’s sort of hard to say ‘no’ to Don Read,” he says.
Athletic directors, like coaches, are often on the way up, a mobile group looking for the next job. O’Day sees things a little differently. He wasn’t ever really out to be an athletic director anyway. Sure, he’ll listen to an offer if one drifted by in time—never say never, he says—but he’s found a home with his family in Missoula and wouldn’t mind staying a very long time.
something special about this place
Missoula is by no means a perfect town. Reserve Street’s a mess, the air still gets a little funky come winter, and the recent spate of summertime fires are a major bummer.
Still, there’s something about Missoula that gets under peoples’ skin. For some, it’s the glorious setting in the five valleys, the rivers, and the hills. For others, it’s summer turning to fall, with the University neighborhood exploding in reds and yellows as Washington-Grizzly Stadium erupts in the back-and-forth call of “Montana Grizzlies.”
Maybe it’s a college friend who stayed on after you left. Maybe it’s all those runs you never skied at Snowbowl. Maybe it’s the little house in the Rattlesnake you always imagined yourself in. Whatever it is, it’s calling you home.
“What I love about life here is the passion that people bring to things,” Holland says. “Everyone just has this passion for the city, for the place we live, for the University. It’s incredible to be a part of it.”
Michael Moore ’85, has lived in Missoula for twenty-seven years and has been a reporter at the Missoulian for twenty-two. He has no plans to leave, but if for some foolish reason he did, he would still call Missoula home.
University District:Preserved in Time
By Don Oliver
321 Daly Avenue. A charming two-story Craftsman home built nearly a hundred years ago in 1910. It was still charming and appealing forty-five years later when I walked by it nearly every day on my way to classes at the University. Through the years I have kept track of 321 Daly Avenue and many of the other beautiful homes and streets in the University District. I have marveled that, with few exceptions, the homes—the yards, the gardens, the magnificent Norwegian maple trees—of the University District look as good or better today than they did when I first saw them in the 1950s.
It was amazing to me as I worked around the country and the world that every time I returned to Missoula and took a drive around campus I would find the University District just as I had left it on my last visit.
This past spring I returned to Missoula to live after spending the better part of thirty years in Los Angeles and traveling the world as a correspondent for NBC News. After all the years of traffic, pollution, noise, and the lack of sense of community, we were lured back to Missoula by the academic environment, our many friends here, and the promise of a Montana way of life.
I returned with a great curiosity about the University District. How has it been able to maintain its character and charm when the core residential areas of so many towns and cities have been ravaged by time, neglect, deterioration, and the desire by some to throw out the old buildings and build new ones?
Talks with current and former residents and city and UM officials have brought me to the conclusion that preservation of the homes and property in the University District hasn’t just happened. It has been the result of the pride and vigilance of generations of watchful neighborhood leaders who have taken on developers or anyone else who sought to change the area through modernization or growth.
As Yogi Berra would say, “Everything looks the same, only different.” Many of the University District homes have undergone extensive renovation and actually do look better than they did when they were built. Some have had fifteen or more owners, but most houses have known just three or four, who proudly passed on their homes to the next generation of owners devoted to maintaining the quality of the status quo.
The oldest home in the University District is at 231 South Fifth East. It was built in 1891, and Merle and Roberta Manis have lived in it for the past forty years. She says “constant vigilance” has kept the University District looking like a place where time stands still.
“We do it out of passion,“ she says, “because it is a beautiful place.“ Like quite a few others in the University District, the Manis' have restored their Queen Anne home and purchased the one next door and restored it.
A few blocks away at 541 McLeod Avenue, Eric and Lee Clemmensen restored their 1948 house and also bought and restored the sixty-eight-year-old home next door. Their son and daughter-in-law now live there.
Lee Clemmensen believes the University District is “something special and worth preserving.” She says this is the spirit motivating residents to keep the area well-maintained and their houses “gussied up.”
Many University District homeowners are active or retired UM professors. Other residents were once UM students who returned later in life.
Through the years there have been disputes and controversies over just what role the district should play in University life. Problems have generally stemmed from the love-hate relationship between permanent University District residents and the transitory student population. UM officials, with backing from developers, have at times voiced the need for more student housing in the University District. While wary of such proposals and often in opposition, residents admit being near students and the campus keeps the district alive and vibrant.
Residents love being able to stroll a few blocks to campus for concerts, student plays, or guest lectures. But the hate portion of the equation manifests itself when students in the district—that includes apartment- and fraternity-dwellers—party loudly till the wee hours of the morning and generally ignore the aesthetic values of the community.
Developers have tried with some success to turn old mansions of the district into apartment buildings. The preservationists have resisted changes in zoning laws to permit more of this. The University Area Homeowners Association and a city-run neighborhood council have taken lead roles as watchdogs over the area. The leadership believes the current threat to the University District comes from attempts at what is being called “densification,” which seems to center on requests to build second houses (known as alley houses) on some of the larger lots in the district. Residents worry about a lack of parking for additional renters and a feeling of crowding, which they tried to escape when they moved here in the first place.
While homeowners remain vigilant, they aren’t as concerned about developers as they once were. It seems students in general would rather not live in old mansions or alley houses. Today’s student wants a more modern apartment with Wi-Fi, high-definition TV, built-in stereo, and other conveniences. And they are willing to drive to newer buildings across town to get them.
The combination of student reluctance and inflated prices of property in the University District are keeping speculators at bay—at least for the time being. Philip Perszyk, a long-time resident and preservationist, is encouraged by anecdotal evidence that recent buyers in the University District are a new breed. They have no old school ties to the University but are drawn to Missoula by word of the city’s comfortable charm, as well as by the continuity and permanence the University District has in abundance that other towns and cities have lost.
If all this is true, and given caring and proud new ownership, the homes of the University District should be good for at least another hundred years.
Don Oliver ’58 is a Billings native and graduate of UM’s School of Journalism and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. After a thirty-year television news career with NBC, he now is an adjunct journalism professor at UM.