Tag Archives: Missoula

The Decemberists light a child’s imagination: A boy and his parents awash in tales of the sea

This column is about the unlikely love of a landlocked Montana family with sea shanties, and how that love grew to embrace an indie band fascinated with the same genre. This first ran in the Missoulian in 2006, a short year before our daughter was born. With the exception of a few edits, the essay below remains faithful to the original.

One of my 8-year-old son’s favorite songs is a gruesome sea shanty about the British Admiral John Benbow, who got his legs torn off by a cannonball in 1702.

We love that sweet and lilting air.

At bedtime at our house, imagine me lying in the dark of my son Josiah’s room, singing about brave Benbow or the sailor who sunk the Turkish Revelee or the wonderful tune about the sailors in the waters off Greenland.

In the dark it’s easy to imagine, encapsulated in the magic of those old lyrics about heartbreak and loss and sailors buried at sea, that we’re rocking in the cozy belly of a wooden ship on the high seas. The feeling between us is one of the things the bland word “love” is supposed to mean. But that word can hardly convey the power of that nighttime ritual.

Yet it helps to explain why the trio of our family will be at the Wilma Theater on Thursday at 8 p.m. to hear the Decemberists sing “bloody and gruesome” numbers about, well, “crazy, weird, exotic imaginative themes,” to use the words of the group’s lead singer Colin Meloy.

We’ll be in the balcony, according to our tickets, and we may be the only couple bringing a second-grade child who ought to be tucked into bed about the same time the show will begin.

Our relationship with the Decemberists began last spring, long after the group– which I know almost nothing about–had begun performing modern songs that echo those classic melodies.

Do you know the term “shantey?” I’m not talking about a ramshackle hut built of cardboard and scraps of tin. Sometimes written “chantey,” it’s a song that sailors once sang while doing work or, I imagine, to while away the awfully long and endlessly boring hours at sea.

As a kid in the 1970s, I listened to “Whaling and Sailing Songs from the Days of Moby Dick” by Paul Clayton. At bedtime, I’d sneak into the living room in our apartment in family housing at the University of Montana beneath the looming hulk of Mountain Sentinel, crouch next to our enormous wooden stereo and lean against the barely audible speakers to hear Clayton’s versions of those lively and, I later learned, often ribald tunes.

I’ve never been on a big wooden ship myself, except once for about three minutes in 1997 when one docked in Oakland, Calif., when I lived there. The tall ship that day seemed rather banal, the volunteer crew too obsessed with trivia about the old whaling and sailing days. I felt like an outsider in a club too lame to join.

Truth be told, I’m an amateur compared to dedicated shantey-ists. I’ve never dressed in flowing shirts to perform at festivals.  If I went to sea, I’d probably lay in bed seasick the whole time, groaning. I don’t know how to tie any fancy sea knots. I’ve never read much about maritime history, except for the liner notes on the Clayton’s yellow and faded album cover.

Really, though, Clayton lays out all you need to know.

“Boney the Warrior” tells the story of Napoleon. “Blood Red Roses” is a prosaic reference to the red outerwear favored by British soldiers going around Cape Horn. (You remember the Redcoats from your school lessons about the American Revolution, right?) I’ve just never understood why soldiers would have been hunting for whales, but never mind.

Most of the remaining shanties are self-explanatory, if you can make out the lyrics, but why bother; the melodic range of Clayton’s renditions are absolutely some of the most beautiful I’ve heard.

Not that I would talk about all this publicly. That’s why it was a revelation when the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” came out in 2003. Turns out there’s tons of us closet, old-timey sea story lovers.

I enjoy “Pirates” as much for its goofiness as for its sailing ships and story line.

That, too, is why the Decemberists’ “Mariner’s Revenge” made me grin.

The ballad is fantastical, ridiculous, really, and it has logical gaps, which is why it’s so fun.

It begins in the belly of a whale: “Its ribs our ceiling beams./ Its guts our carpeting,” I believe the lyrics go.

The narrator then tells his companion, also stuck inside the whale’s belly, why he’s going to kill him. He explains that long ago connection, the companion seduced and defrauded his mother, which led to her death and his life as a desperate urchin in the streets.

And now, trapped with the object of his lifelong hatred, the narrator is poised to wreak his revenge.

This is the perfect sea music for me and my family. It draws from and looks back with a smirk to those wonderful songs of the sea. It’s funny. It’s not too serious. It doesn’t require us to join a nerdy club.

Well, I should qualify that last statement. I don’t think we’ll join any nerdy clubs. The balcony may be crammed with moms and dads and 8-year-olds. If that happens, who knows? Maybe I’ll form the club.


Here’s an incredible, unofficial video of ” The Mariner’s Revenge Song.


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Filed under 2006, Family, Old News Stories and Columns

Piles of Pieces from a Now-defunct Site

Welcome to this broad sampling of news stories from my days at a small regional news website based in Missoula, Montana, called NewWest.Net, which I left in late 2008. The weekly Missoula Independent recently ran a short and thoughtful item about the nature of news on the web, and how everything gets lost when the host server goes dark.

That’s what was happening at NewWest.Net. The site had suffered hard in the summer and fall of 2008, and apparently it ran out of money recently.

The web addresses where these old stories have existed will soon lead to dead-ends. I admit that it’s tempting to believe that online news, then, is somehow fundamentally different from print news, but I don’t know if I believe that. Each magazine, each sheet of newsprint will someday mold and decompose, no matter what we do.

The online stuff just seems more temporary because it can vanish when the lights go out, I guess. But I’m one of those people who believes that all things are temporary. Some are just more so.

Several weeks ago, a friend emailed me a link to the Missoula Independent story, and so I went back to NewWest.Net. I saved a selection of the things I posted. My goal was to save the ones with legs, the few that might be capable of keeping up with the passage of months and years.

The columns were the obvious first choices. Those include the one about backpacking with my son in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. I like that one, because it brings back to my mind a host of outdoor adventures with my son, including a great hunting trip we made with my good friend Rob Chaney, who still writes in Missoula where he lives with his lovely wife and two kids.

Other columns explore the shifting political landscape of the West, especially the growing political and voting power of Natives.

Another pile of news stories explores some of the happenings in the West at the time. Often my goal was to explore the links between local phenomena and the larger events of the day. For instance, when Lehman Brothers fell apart in the financial collapse of the summer and fall in 2008, I found places in Montana and around the West where the principals at Lehman Brothers had invested money. I do regret, though, that I never truly painted the broad picture with Lehman’s final CEO Richard Fuld and the Big Banks, at least not like I did with billionaire Bill Foley. Maybe it’s time to do that….

And then there are the political news pieces, like the one that tracks down the ridiculous comments of Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, made at a fundraiser in Pennsylvania. The comments had sparked a mini-maelstrom in conservative circles on the Internet, but so few of the bloggers and commenters out there of any stripe are willing to actually track something down. I did. And I’m quite proud of the result.

And lastly, I included a sampling of other stories, mostly about crime and tragedy. I’m not necessarily interested in misfortune as much as what I think it means.

I do hope this blog provides me with a way to write in a compelling way, broadly, about the things I find worth exploring. And I hope these pieces provide something of a prologue.

Note: I’m not particularly interested in leaving the pieces as they first ran. I’ve found simple grammatical errors in some places. Also, I have to admit that sometimes I wrapped up the pieces with trite wordplay, simply because I was in a hurry to get onto the next item or because I wasn’t quite there yet as a writer. I intend to follow-through with my earliest intentions when possible.

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Fear of Bears Flourishes While Son Sleeps, Unperturbed


The sound of a large mammal breathing outside the tent interrupted my sleep. It was well after midnight. Snow was falling thick in the high foothills on the eastern slopes of the Mission Mountains. Every now and then a drift would slide from the tent roof with a gentle sound of snow on nylon. I just knew an animal was outside, nosing in the soft powder.

My bear spray, as usual, was propped in my boot near my head. My hand found it in the darkness. I lay still, listening intently, gripping the cold can of spray. My son slept peacefully beside me, comfortable in two sleeping bags. (That’s the way we roll, we like to joke, as we stuff our sleeping bags, one into the other, on our winter trips into the backcountry.)

This time our goal was to chase whitetail deer. We were high by a lake that would have a ring of ice in the morning. It’s pristine country – and perfect bear habitat. (A friend on the trip with us wondered why I would carry bear spray while also packing a hunting rifle. “You’ve got lead spray,” he says, gesturing to the gun. But I don’t want to shoot a bear – unless I have no other choice.)

That doesn’t mean I’m not terrified of bears. I can’t say how many times the night sounds of the forest have taken me from deep slumber to high alert. But it’s something that only happens when I’m in a tent with my son. When I’m alone, bears hardly cross my mind. Surprisingly, I slept like a log a few months ago when our family of four camped in Yellowstone National Park, even though our infant daughter was the picture of sweet vulnerability and a sow grizzly with two cubs had been reported in the area. But as a family unit, we seemed somehow stronger, tougher.

Not so when it’s just my boy and me. A few summers ago I harangued myself into the wee hours for bringing him, then six, into the Bob Marshall Wilderness to a place called Grizzly Basin. In any other place, a name like that would be poetical exaggeration. In the Bob Marshall, it’s an honest description.

It was a horrifying night. Something kept smacking the wall of the tent. I argued with myself about what would be worse – getting out of the tent, spray in hand, to confront the grizzly (I knew it was a grizzly), or staying inside the tent and, what? I realized the spray was useless inside the tent. A bear could collapse the tent and maul us, and I probably wouldn’t get a chance to cut loose with it without giving an eyeful to Josiah and myself. That night, at length, I realized that the slaps against the wall of the tent came from my son, who would roll over in his sleep and throw out an arm to cool off.

My tortured sleep that summer night and my fear of bears in the Bob Marshall prompted me to pick a spot in the mountains east of Hamilton for our backpacking trip this past summer.

I should add that we’re careful backpackers. As usual, we prepared and ate our food – and then hung our food stash – more than 100 yards from our campsite. We don’t even keep toothpaste in the tent.

Still, east of Hamilton in the middle of the night, I woke to hear snapping sounds as an animal walked clumsily through the brush nearby. As I strained my ears, I caught what seemed to me a clear progression: from the food stash and eating area toward the tent. Steeling myself for action, I reasoned that this black bear (it had to be a black) was about to get an appropriate lesson. Unable to get an easy dinner from our out-of-reach food bag, it would now get a solid blast of pepper in the face.

I stepped from the tent to find myself face-to-face with a good-sized whitetail buck. Surprised and chilly in the mountain air, I almost sprayed him. In the moonlight, a string of does was visible behind him, the whole train of them munching on bushes and stepping on twigs.

All these previous scenes flashed through my mind on our most recent trip. A phrase came to me – “obligatory bear noises” – as I forced myself to drift back to sleep. The next morning the snow recorded no bear tracks, no tracks at all.

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The Story of Billy Poole


Photo courtesy of Black Diamond.

When Billy Poole – who died yesterday making a Warren Miller ski film in Big Cottonwood Canyon near Salt Lake City – was 11 or 12, he made a home movie with his grandfather, Lou Erck of Missoula.

“It was a funny movie,” said Billy’s older sister Pennie Thompson. “He goes off this little jump, and Grampa made it look like Billy jumped onto the lift chair.”

Pennie wiped her eyes. She was sitting at the kitchen table of her grandparents’ house in the Rattlesnake neighborhood in Missoula. Her grandmother Ruby sat across from her. Billy had always told his Grandma that he was careful skiing, that he didn’t take chances.

Paul Jaroscak of the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office said Billy had been skiing the canyon behind a few other skiers sometime before 10 a.m. Tuesday. He took another line on a jump off of a cliff and landed on rocks below. A helicopter ferried him to a hospital in Salt Lake City. A doctor there called Billy’s mother in Missoula shortly afterward, telling her that her son had died of his injuries.

“That’s no way to learn about a death, on the phone,” Billy’s Grandmother Ruby said.

“I hate to think it’s all on film, but it’s probably all on film,” Pennie said.

Skiing was in Billy’s blood. His mother, Phyllis Erck, skied when she was pregnant with him. He first skied himself when he was three. He would head straight down the hill at Marshall Ski Area near Missoula, frustrating his instructor, his sister said. He wanted to go fast. When his Grandmother asked him to please learn to turn, so he could ski on bigger runs with her and wouldn’t have to stay on little hill serviced by the rope tow. Billy said, “Oh, I love the rope tow.”

Billy didn’t just jump hundreds of feet. He jumped hundreds of feet, flipping slowly in the air over obstacles like power lines or railroad trestles.

“As Buzz Lightyear said, ‘He didn’t just fall, it’s falling with style,’” said brother-in-law Blaine Thompson.

Yet he wasn’t reckless, Pennie said. He would carefully scope out his landing, gauge the speed he would need and sometimes he would decide against a particular stunt, if it seemed too dangerous.

“It’s insanity, but he did as much as he could to test things,” Pennie said. “We see the end product (in the impossible photographs of a man tumbling through space, or the films of a redheaded skier seeming to levitate over chasms). There’s a lot that goes into it.”

When Billy was about five, he and his mother and sister moved to Cambridge, Mass. A few years later, the three of them went to Nashua, N.H., and then to Barre, Mass., where Billy graduated from Quabbin Regional High School. All through his childhood and early adulthood, he spent summers in Missoula. He was a phenomenal athlete. He went to state as a wrestler and played catcher in baseball. He also skateboarded and played hockey. At the University of New Hampshire, he earned a degree in civil engineering. He took his last semester at Montana State University in Bozeman, so he could ski the whole time. That’s when he launched his skiing career, working construction during the summers.

He made himself a name in freeride ski competitions in 2002, according to a February 2008 article on him in Powder Magazine, when he jumped 60 feet onto slushy snow. Over the last six years, he has been featured in almost every ski publication in North America. Two years ago he was sponsored by Black Diamond.

Billy earned himself plenty of glory, and unending respect as a no-holds-barred freeride skier, but it wasn’t a lush life, Pennie said. When his transmission went out on his car, he had to borrow money from his mom to fix it, she said.

This year was Billy’s. Aside from being in Warren Miller Entertainment’s latest extreme ski film, Billy was working with Black Diamond on the design and marketing of a new ski boot, said company spokesman Penn Newhard. Billy is on billboards all over Salt Lake City for the Snowsports Trade Show starting Jan. 29.

“Billy had really grown into his role as a very talented athlete, but more so he distinguished himself by his character. He was thoughtful, hardworking, prompt. He treated his job professionally. We are deeply saddened by this tragedy. This is a loss. He’ll be missed. It’s a little tough,” Newhard said. “He was an asset to Black Diamond and the ski community. He was bright, fun to be around. This is really tough.”

Yesterday morning, a bunch of employees of Black Diamond met at a local ski area early in the morning before work, said Black Diamond quality engineer Evan Bouchier, who had met Billy a few months ago. At the company’s headquarters, the lower floor houses the manufacturing center, and the upper floor has the marketers, engineers, developers and other offices. It’s a big space of low partitions between workstations. Gear is piled everywhere, Bouchier said.

“It’s a good atmosphere. We hang together. It’s nature of the deal. We’re all super into this stuff, trying to make a living and ski bottomless powder before work as often as we can,” he said.

When news about Billy went around the building, everyone was stunned, shaken. Everyone knows that the marquee skiers court danger. Still, it’s a little weird when a young man, seeming so invincible, dies doing what he does so well.

On Tuesday night about 50 of Billy’s friends held a wake at his place, his grandmother Ruby said. Billy’s mother was there, as was his grandfather, Lou. This afternoon, Pennie and Blaine planned to drive down to Salt Lake City for the memorial service. Another memorial is planned in Missoula, although the details have not yet been worked out, Pennie said.

“I’m his sister. I followed him around saying, ‘Billy, don’t do that. Billy, don’t do that,’” Pennie said. Billy was a risk taker, but very rarely did he get hurt, she said. When he skated on a pond with rotten ice, it was Pennie who fell through – when she was trying to get him to stop.

“I kept hoping he’d give this up and go into business,” said Ruby, who owns Ruby’s Inn in Missoula with her husband. And he did start a business. A year ago, he started a hat company called Discrete with Julian Carr, a fellow skier, Pennie said. But he didn’t stop skiing.

“Skiing was his mainstay,” Pennie said.

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Misfits and Why We Love Them


Robert Struckman

Back in 1981, some weeks before the start of grade school, a tinker of a man walked out of the Bob Marshall Wilderness with a backpack and dirty clothes and asked me how my luck was.

That summer, like most others of my childhood, my father worked for the U.S. Forest Service. Five of us lived in a one-room, bathroom-free shack on the outskirts of the town of Seeley Lake, Montana.

My luck, as it happened, was great. I was fishing on a bit of a stream no wider than a ditch, yanking brook trout from the water with grasshoppers as bait.

The mountain man sat down beside me. Soon he set up a tent a few hundred yards from our shack, caught a few trout of his own and cooked them in a quick, flavorful stew with reconstituted carrots and powdered vegetables. We wiled away the day, eating and philosophizing. I fished with him for days until he packed up and hiked off.

I had that bearded and thoughtful mountain man in mind in 1999 when I telephoned libraries around the region for an informal survey of hermits and other self-styled castaways for a daily newspaper feature about the culture of the West.

It made my heart swell with regional pride when the doughty librarians in towns like Red Lodge and Casper responded defensively to a call from a reporter about their quirky customers. (I had called public libraries because Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, maintained an epistolary relationship from jail with a librarian in Lincoln, the small town near which he holed up in the years before his 1996 arrest.) All of them knew of soloists who, although presumably not murderous, shared superficial traits with the Unabomber.

The hermits of the West don’t all live in the wilderness on old mining claims. My uncle, who suffered from schizophrenia and died of a heart attack in 1997, lived more than 20 years in a small rental house near the railroad tracks on Missoula’s north side. A sardonic woodworker and a phenomenally patient gardener, he existed in an insular world, guarded by his family and neighbors.

One of the great strengths of the Mountain West is our propensity to attract and shelter loners. The sparsely populated crags, windswept plains and river bottoms of this region have given refuge over the years to a special brand of misfit. Those oddballs, mostly harmless, have exerted an anti-homogenizing influence on the region’s culture, which is one reason this area has retained its ethic of individualism so attractive to the rest of the nation.

This attractiveness, manifesting itself as lifestyle, has joined metals and agriculture products as one of our most valuable commodities, and fed a massive growth industry, growth itself. A commodity, though, is a uniform product – all sheets of plywood are basically identical – and that’s exactly what our cities and towns and mountains and forests are not.

For long decades, while the rest of America ordered food from coast-to-coast restaurant chains, local drive-ins in the economic eddies and backwaters of Wyoming and Idaho and Montana and Oregon continued frying fries and serving burgers, blithely unaware of their own obsolescence. Once common, they’ve become jewels you stumble onto sometimes, when driving long hours to visit relatives.

The Mountain West, in this respect at least, is now catching up with the country, and there is plenty to be said for that. Roads get upgraded. Big box stores sprout along newly broadened commercial corridors. Upscale retailers reveal themselves in formerly dilapidated downtown storefronts. Incomes are rising.

Yet the ethic of idiosyncrasy is one that’s worth preserving, even as we grow. That means maintaining privacy for those who seek it, as well as keeping open the access to our vast tracts of public land and funding our public libraries, those migration corridors and refuges of the loners.

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Montana’s Cash Cowboy

Billionaire Bill Foley has bought a ski resort, a cattle ranch and a couple of restaurant chains in Montana — and the self-described “serial acquirer” may be just getting started.


If you didn’t know any better, you might think William Patrick (Bill) Foley II was just another retiring baby boomer looking for golf courses, open spaces and the chance to recapture an idealized childhood of summertimes on the family ranch. A frank man with an almost goofy charm, he speaks of his love for Montana, his concern for the landscape — and the joy he gets bombing around the backcountry on an ATV or a snowmobile.

But the truth is, Foley isn’t very good at leisure. He’s got the fancy log home on Whitefish Lake, five West Coast wineries, the huge cattle ranch near Deer Lodge, and the requisite private jets, but he can’t seem to help turning everything into a business.

He bought Big Mountain, the Whitefish ski hill, and is busy turning it into a more elaborate entity called Whitefish Mountain Resort. He’s transforming the 90,000-acre Rock Creek Cattle Company into a gated, luxury vacation community with 240 home sites. He bought the Glacier Jet Center at the Kalispell Airport, where he parks his planes, and has big ambitions for that, too.

He enjoyed a couple of local restaurants — Ciao Mambo and MacKenzie River Pizza Co. — and added them to his portfolio, with plans to build a substantial casual eatery chain. And then there’s Fidelity National Timber Resources, which owns extensive forests in Oregon and Washington that Foley thought had a lot of value for real estate development.

“I’m a serial acquirer,” he says. “I can’t seem to stop, whatever flaw that is. And then I can’t stand it until it is perfect. I have to keep on fooling with it. I wish I could figure that one out. My golf game would get a lot better.”

RICH MAN’S RANCH:The Rock Creek Cattle Co. near Deer Lodge, Mont. will keep the cows — event as it adds several hundred luxury houses. Photo by Anne Medley.

Don’t be fooled though: He’s no slouch. Golf Digest named him one of the world’s top five executive golfers in 2004. And if his record at Fidelity National Financial, the Fortune 500 company he built from scratch, is any indication, he’s not done buying things in the West. Fidelity acquired more than 100 companies under Foley’s leadership and spun off a second public company, Fidelity National Information Services, about two years ago. In the past few years, Fidelity National Financial recapitalized, paying Foley a bundle, and he has been unloading big chunks of his FNIS stock (he stepped down as CEO of the two companies in mid-2007). He’s now set up as a perfectly positioned cash buyer at a time when lots of distressed assets are on the market.

Indeed, Foley appears to be in a much better spot than most of the Wall Street moguls, Silicon Valley financiers and high-rolling property developers who see the surging “amenity economy” in the Mountain West as the next great capitalist frontier. In some ways, he’s representative of the breed: a very rich man who’s become enamored with the West, and whose first instinct is to buy it.

Yet a number of high-profile developments by and for the wealthy — Promontory in Utah, Tamarack Resort in Idaho and Yellowstone Club in Montana, to name the most prominent examples — are staggering under heavy debt loads and a weakening economy. Boomtowns from Boise to Bozeman are seeing slower growth. But Foley, with an immense and highly liquid fortune, can afford to take the long view.

Foley is a West Point grad, and there is a certain military efficiency in his approach to business: Make sure you have plenty of assets, strategize carefully to find the non-obvious openings, win hearts and minds if you can — and cut your losses, unsentimentally, at the first sign of trouble.

If you’re the owner of a company that Foley wants to buy, it’s all sweetness and light and big piles of cash (hostile takeovers aren’t his thing). Steve Shuel, who sold MacKenzie River Pizza Co. to Foley’s restaurant group, describes the deal-making as “an unbelievable process in a positive way.” Contractors say he pays his bills, always and on time (which is more than you can say for a lot of moneyed developers), and public officials in Montana call him a model corporate citizen.

But if you’re driving around Whitefish Lake, or any other place where Foley owns a big spread, you can expect to see access to fishing blocked by poster-sized signs saying, “No Trespassing” and “Violators Will Be Prosecuted.” Not all the signs are his, but his are among the largest and most menacing.

MONTANA CHIC:Foley’s home on Whitefish Lake features old barn wood (even on this three-car garage) and ranch-style architecture (emphasis on “style”). Photo by Anne Medley.

If you’re an employee at Fidelity National Financial during a period of retrenchment, you can expect that pink slip unaccompanied by any severance pay. If you’re a contractor falling behind on a job, watch out — even if, as in one case at the Rock Creek Cattle Co., your wife just committed suicide.

Foley has no time for people who don’t get it done: “If they didn’t perform, we fired them.”

All of which raises the question: why bring this approach to the Mountain West, which defines itself, at least in part, as a place with a different pace to life? Why buy property and build gates and fences in a state where the law — and the vast majority of the citizenry — zealously guard the principle of access to public lands and waterways? Why try to convince yourself, as Foley does, that your 11,000-square-foot house on Whitefish Lake, built of oak from a Kentucky tobacco barn and complete with solid copper drain spouts, is “like an old Montana ranch house.”

Partly, as always for Foley, it’s a business opportunity. But the business and the personal are tightly intertwined: “In the East, everyone wants out,” he muses. “We’ve worked hard all of our lives, and we’re hitting the age point where we want to get away. We want land and space, want to be in a cool area, maybe not all year around, but we want to be there enough to really enjoy it. We all want life to be what we had as a kid.”

Foley was born in 1944 in Austin, Texas, the only child of an Air Force officer. The family moved every few years, following his father’s transfer orders to Alaska, California (where his father was commander of Edwards Air Force Base), Virginia and Venezuela, where he attended an American-style school from the seventh to the tenth grade. Then it was a short stint in Elizabethtown, Penn., and Clinton, Md., where Foley graduated from Surrattsville High School (named after Mary Surratt, a woman conspirator hanged for her role in the assassination of President Lincoln.)

DON’T EAT THE WOODEN ARTICHOKES: The Foley house is meticulously decorated with Western and agricultural themes. Photo by Anne Medley.

His mother was the scion of an old Texas ranching family, and she had four brothers, all of whom had first children, boys, who were the same age as young Bill. Until he was 16, his mother regularly returned with him to a family ranch near Amarillo.

“I grew up summers there, not for school years,” Foley says. “We’d go to a canyon, hang out and ride horses and shoot, do all kinds of dumb stuff.”

But it was the United States Military Academy at West Point, more than summers in Texas or schooling abroad, which seems to have shaped Foley. Tom Dyer, one of his schoolmates, recalls how he and Bill and about 800 other boys arrived at college on a July day in 1963, each an individual with his own haircut and clothing. “By five o’clock that night, we all had the same clothes on. Everybody had his head shaved.”

The academic program did not offer a lot of flexibility: a heavy dose of math, science and engineering tempered by a bit of the liberal arts.

“It served its purpose well. They strip you down, put you back together, better than what you were,” Dyer says. “You get a strong constitution.”

Or, as Foley puts it, “You don’t understand it quite then, what it does for you.”

Almost all of the 583 young men who graduated with Foley went into the Army and most went to Vietnam. At that time, West Point allowed graduates to follow their father into another service. Foley had fallen in love with airplanes as a boy and had wanted to fly, he says, but his eyesight had deteriorated during college. The Air Force offered him a spot as a navigator. “That’s really great news: fly in the back of an F4 over Vietnam,” he says. That sounded like a good way to get shot.

Instead, he got a desk assignment in Seattle as an Air Force representative at Boeing Company, overseeing military contracts. Neither Foley nor his fellow officers had any training in the engineering and manufacturing of aircraft, so Foley applied a regression analysis and figured out that certain costs should have been lower; he saved the Air Force $40 million on one of his earlier renegotiations, he says. He specialized in finding the padding inserted into the deals. By 26, he held the rank of captain and had authority to negotiate contracts worth up to $250 million.

The financial acumen started earlier.

“From the beginning, there was something about Bill and his penchant for, or knack for, capitalism. We would be talking about whatever, and Bill would be talking about what was going on in the stock market,” Dyer says. “He was just advanced in that regard.”

GO ARMY! Foley is loyal to West Point, his alma mater: “Traveling around, as an only child, I was a bit of a wimp, self-centered,” he says. “It did a lot for me, taught me dicipline and authority. Photo by Anne Medley.

Foley says he had been a stock chartist, even at West Point. “I kept my own charts, did everything by hand. I had a broker in New York City. I’d run down and make a collect phone call. I wasn’t very scientific. I got interested in oil. I also invested in a lot of airlines. Regional airlines were getting merged — Mohawk, Bonanza, Air West, Pacific Airlines. I did really well with them. I tried to take my losses quick. I started with $2,000 dad gave me. I ended up with $25,000, which was a lot of money in 1967.”

While still in the Air Force, Foley began taking classes at Seattle University, working toward a master’s degree in business administration. He had also come to the conclusion that Seattle wasn’t a good place to meet women. He and a friend applied a bit of social analysis and concluded that flight attendants might provide fruitful fodder.

“We snooped and found an apartment building full of flight attendants: four to an apartment, three to an apartment. There were 150 units. There must have been 300 at least,” Foley says. “I met Carol there at a party. We married before I was out of the Air Force,” he says. Bill and Carol have four children.

Foley likes to mention that Carol put him through law school at the University of Washington with her job at United Airlines. Since then, he says, she’s been a freeloader.

“What? She’s a freeloader. I like to be honest,” he says.

After law school, Foley went to Arizona because it seemed to be happening, full of money from Chicago and the West Coast. He got a job at a big law firm, and, after a couple of years, founded his own firm with a few partners. He helped one client buy a small title insurance company and then, in 1984, engineered the purchase of that company for himself and his investors. He expanded the small Phoenix title company, Fidelity National Financial, mostly through acquisitions, and in 1987 took the company public and continued its growth. Some of his early deals were less than stellar, he says. He bought a troubled agency with little potential in Tucson for $1 million.

“We probably should have paid $300,000,” he says. Before long he had figured out how to buy companies often far below book value, pennies on the dollar.

“A big company would say, ‘We have to get out. We’re done.’ I’d pick up semi-bankrupt operations and survive long enough to turn them around,” he says.

All told Foley has done more than 100 corporate mergers and at least as many acquisitions. By 2003, Fidelity provided title insurance for close to one-third of all the residential real estate transactions in the United States and, in 2006, had revenues of $9.6 billion and profits of nearly $1 billion. The company streamlined its business operations with purchases of technology companies and other back-office service providers; some of those lines have been spun off into their own companies, including Fidelity National Information Services, which works with nine of the top 10 global banks. Fidelity National Financial remains so large that another spinoff, the lender services division, could well take place within a few months.

Foley is often credited with being one of the first to recognize the growth potential of the title insurance field, always something of a backwater in the real estate world. And while the company has taken a hit from the national real estate slump, it’s also finding new opportunities: managing foreclosure operations.

Not everyone thinks Foley’s leadership has been optimal. Jim Ryan, a Morningstar analyst who studies the company, gives the Fidelity companies low marks for stewardship and a lack of focus. “They act more like a Leucadia, the investment company, which buys and sells and is extremely good at it. Fidelity National Financial treats the title business as a cash cow to run an investment company,” he says, “but they don’t have the right people or the patience to pull it off.”

“I don’t like the shifting and spinning off of companies,” Ryan adds. Last quarter, for instance, Fidelity National Financial bought back one company from its own spinoff. Plus, he feels Fidelity National Financial’s board rewards Foley with big bonuses for deals that don’t necessarily add value for stockholders. Ryan cited a few recent deals, including Fidelity’s purchase of 293,000 acres of timberland for about $94 million from the wreckage of what had been Cascade Timberlands. The land extends from Bend, Ore., to the California border. Ryan says: “I’m still trying to figure that one out.”

When talking to Foley and his team, though, the artfulness of the Cascade purchase seems like part of the allure. The former assets of the bankrupt timber company had gone to auction, but, instead of bidding for the acreage, Fidelity took a back-door route, buying a controlling share of the bankrupt company’s debt. Then it stopped the auction and turned those assets to its own use. Fidelity now has two major private communities in the works on its former timberlands.

Still, in the 20 years that Fidelity National Financial has been a publicly traded company, it has averaged a 22 percent annual return to its shareholders — and Foley is proud of that figure. It’s the kind of number that keeps skeptical analysts at bay.

People who work with Foley — from his contractors to his secretaries to his business partners and associates — describe him as a genius and one of the hardest workers they’ve ever met. (The publisher of this magazine ran into him working the lift line at Whitefish Mountain Resort.) He retains even miniscule details about his many business ventures and seems to have an intuitive feel for whether something will make money or not.

SPEED IT UP! Contractors say Foley pays his bills promptly, but he sometimes cycles through workers at a dizzying rate. Photo by Anne Medley.

Foley maintains an easy-going air. By contrast, Greg Lane, his point man in Montana, often looks stressed out. A mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer who joined Foley’s team in 1997, Lane is jokingly referred to as “Bill’s better half.” Lane worries about Foley, and says he can’t go on vacation because he has to keep an eye on Foley’s businesses. He also heads up the political side of Foley’s work — talking to county commissioners, planning boards, citizen groups, city councils, tribal leaders, governors and others. Often, locals react strongly when a billionaire buys into the neighborhood and airs ambitious development plans.

In Whitefish, for instance, there has been a backlash against Foley, who in a trademark piece of deal-making acquired a controlling interest in the stock of Big Mountain, a ski area that was built and owned by local residents. Foley’s first effort to buy the company failed, but then Richard Dasen, a local businessman and major shareholder in Big Mountain, was arrested and charged with luring girls and meth-addicted young women into prostitution. (Dasen was found guilty of five felonies, including sexual abuse of children, and recently finished serving a two-year prison sentence.) Dasen had to sell his assets in a hurry. Foley bought his Big Mountain stock, which gave him enough leverage to push through a series of reverse stock splits until he had a controlling interest. (Foley has since invested heavily in the resort, putting in new lifts and a day lodge, among other amenities.)

When Foley invests in something, he hates to go halfway. When he wanted to give to his alma mater two years ago, for instance, he gave $25 million, the single largest gift in West Point’s history, to build a new athletic center.

Politically, Foley jokingly calls himself a “cross-dresser.” He’s socially liberal, he says, and fiscally conservative. He likes California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (Republican) and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (Democrat). He says he’ll probably vote for presumptive Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain in November. His record of campaign contributions over the past 15 years would lead you to believe his politics are driven by his business. Foley gives generously across the board to Republicans and, generally speaking, to sure-thing Democrats. Since the 2000 election cycle, Foley has given $152,000 in direct campaign contributions in Florida and California, and more recently in Montana, well over half of it to Republicans, according to records kept by OpenSecrets.Org.

As for interpersonal politics, Foley has Lane, who has a talent for smoothing ruffled feathers. He is good at explaining what the billionaire is up to, which always helps. He’s also good at making alliances and strategic concessions. In Bend, Lane has helped pave the way for a private development of Fidelity Timber Resources by setting up a 33,000-acre community forest for the town. Lane has also been working with the Klamath Tribes and the federal government and others with the goal of adding to a land base for the tribes — and another development for Fidelity.

In Deer Lodge, Lane talks about the wealth of knowledge held by the longtime manager of the ranch and of how much he has enjoyed working with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and the local government in Powell County (population about 7,000). Powell County Commissioner Dwight O’Hara likes Lane. He says Lane drops by just to talk. “He’s an old shoe,” O’Hara says. When the construction of the private club was going full bore, it maxed out Powell County’s labor force and filled the cafes, hotels and rental apartments in Deer Lodge. O’Hara says Lane and Foley have been “excellent corporate citizens, straight-forward, very easy to work with.”

Lane insisted that Foley loves the West, loves Montana the way it is, and is going to great lengths to keep things the way they are — for instance, by putting easements on areas of the ranch so the views from nearby Deer Lodge will not change. (As of mid-April, 43 of the Rock Creek Cattle Co. home sites had been sold, Lane says.)

Love for Montana doesn’t mean the regular rules of capitalism go slack. For the ranch and the golf course, designed by Tom Doak, Foley laid out an aggressive construction schedule, and he got it, mostly. His contractors say working for him is fantastic in some respects, but his management style, which some call one-strike-and-you’re-out, has made for some hard feelings. He cycled through engineers and contractors, sometimes at a dizzying rate.

It’s not as if Foley is simply mean. The first engineers hired to rehabilitate the fisheries on the ranch didn’t get the proper permits. “It was bullshit,” Foley says. The first general contractor fell behind. Foley brought on a new general who has kept up with the schedule, and the new fisheries guy works hard. Foley appreciates that.

Commissioner O’Hara says, “He gave locals a fair shot at it.”

It’s about 50 minutes door-to-door from Rock Creek Cattle Co. to Foley’s house on Whitefish Lake, if you’re flying in Foley’s six-seat black BELL407 helicopter with custom leather upholstery. (Otherwise the 220-mile drive takes about four hours in good weather.) Foley’s pilot is West Point alum and 10-year U.S. Army veteran Mike Talbot. The helicopter sports the West Point logo on its side.

KEEP OUT: Barbed wire fences, like this one at the Rocky Creek Cattle Co. keep cows and calves in. But Foley goes further with security gates and other measures to keep people out. Photo by Anne Medley.

Foley also owns two jets. One is a modest Beechjet 400. The other is a huge GulfstreamV — the trophy jet of the ultra-rich (its title is held by Fidelity National Financial, which often leases it to a charter service).

Foley allowed that the culture of the Mountain West has been altered, and will continue to be, as billionaires and business executives like him seek out the quiet corners, the places where people are genuine and open. Yet he doesn’t think his own presence and his investments (which total about $125 million in Montana) inject into his new environment those characteristics of the East Coast, of California and of Florida that he would like to leave behind.

“It’s not such a bad thing that people like me are coming here,” Foley says. “Most of us are pretty concerned about things like land use. There are 300 million Americans and counting. Montana, like Wyoming and Idaho, you’re going to attract people.”

On the expansive back patio of the Whitefish house, Foley calls for Snowball, an airy puff of a Samoyed, and the dog wags his tail but doesn’t come.

Snowball eventually wanders over. Foley scratches him behind the ears. “He’s not loyal,” Foley says with feigned annoyance. “An alpha Samoyed can be squirrelly, kind of mean and bitey.” Snowball sat down on the flagstones, a big grin on his face. “Not Snowball. He’s just dumb.”

Foley gestures toward the rear of the Whitefish house. Like a lot of rich people across the Mountain West, he idealizes “authentic” relics and materials. Real weathered barn wood, for instance, is big with this crowd, creating the sense of house-as-extended-mood-piece. Foley may have a twinkle in his eye and a genuine smile, he might foster a few of his Montana employees in an almost fatherly way, but he remains a sharp-edged executive isolated by security gates and thousands of acres. The barn wood seems to offset the exclusivity, rendering it less uncomfortable.

“The idea is that it’s like an old Montana ranch house, and then you add onto it,” he says, describing the theory behind the rambling architecture. Foley points out the lack of uniformity in the size of the weathered Kentucky oak logs and the chinking between them.

“You just put up the logs, and then you chink it to fit. The idea is for it to be a little understated, to look like it’s old,” he says.

Artwork, from a gallery south of Missoula, had been hung on the walls that day. Provenance papers listing the artists and the prices lie on a table. Foley walks around the ground floor with his wife and takes in the original paintings. Four of them in a stairwell reflect too much light from a big window on the landing. Those will be sent back. Another one in the entryway Foley deems too colorful. He and Carol both really like a large painting in the living room by Ace Cooper entitled “End of a Perfect Day.”

The two admire it for a moment and say they find it relaxing.

In the painting, two cowboys in the foreground pick their way across a dry landscape of sage and rocks toward a distant homestead at the base of a high ridge. The entire scene, which has hints of autumnal reds and oranges, is bathed in early evening shadow, except for a distant ridge, which glows with late sunlight. There’s not a fence in sight.

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In the Aftermath, One Mother Picks Up the Pieces

A morning shooting put one family in the headlines. Here’s the story of what happened after the ambulances left and the detectives passed the file on to the Missoula County Attorney’s office.


On a warm summer afternoon at home, Gayle Hafner and her three daughters, Brittney, 11; Zarah, 7; and Torissa, 5, gather for a photograph. Brittney wants to be a fashion designer, Zarah does not want to wear a helmet when she rides the neighbor’s 4-wheeler and everyone agrees that Torissa is the princess of the household. Photo by Alexia Beckerling

Behind the veneer of Montana’s amenity economy—where home-building and carpet installation have largely replaced blue-collar careers like logging and millwork—lie the same human conditions, landscapes of tough times.

Here’s the story of one family—living a short drive down the Bitterroot Valley from Charles Schwab’s moneyed Stock Farm—the mess they got into and a life that isn’t always simple or easy.

The family was catapulted into the evening news a little over two weeks ago with a breakfast-time 9-1-1 call about a man who had been shot. Bruce Hafner, a 49-year-old carpet-installer and owner of Hafner Installation, had allegedly pulled the trigger of a handgun, putting a bullet through the chest of his 51-year-old brother Dennis. Worse, one of Bruce’s young daughters, who police say was almost in the path of the bullet, witnessed the whole thing.

Bruce is in Missoula County Jail on charges of attempted murder and criminal endangerment. The attempted murder charge likely won’t hold a lot of water. For one thing, self-defense may be a factor, and, anyway, Dennis said he doesn’t intend to press charges. He’s also gone. He checked himself out of St. Patrick Hospital about a week after the shooting and—despite a punctured lung—bought a ticket and boarded a bus back to his home in Oregon. There, says his probation officer, he faces a year in jail for violating probation on an unrelated misdemeanor.

Bruce, the alleged shooter, is a likeable and hardworking man. From a poor background, he has struggled all his life for respectability. Several times over the past few years, he has invited his older brother to his well-kept Lolo home with its immaculate lawns and flourishing tomato plants when his carpet business got too hectic. Family members said the two had a close, although sometimes screwed-up, relationship. Basically, they got drunk and fought each other. (Aside from the charges relating to the shooting, Bruce has an ongoing felony DUI case.)

But sorting through all that will be a job for attorneys and, maybe, a jury. More pertinent to this column were the goings-on the week after detectives and paramedics swarmed the family’s home just up U.S. Highway 12 from Lolo.

That Wednesday, a handful of balloons marked the entrance to the Hafner driveway. A long-scheduled estate sale was in progress. Easy chairs sat in a row on the lawn in front of a modest house and a significant lilac hedge. There were tools and kitchenware and lots of books—mostly Western fiction and history and Readers Digest condensed classics.

Gayle Hafner—Bruce’s wife—managed the sale with the help of family members from her side. The life’s goods on the lawn had been Gayle’s mother’s, LaGean Walker, who died in June after a long struggle with COPD—chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder. All afternoon, Gayle’s three daughters ran in and out of the house and to a neighbor’s.

It’s a comfortable home, removed from Highway 12 by a long driveway. Gayle and Bruce bought the place from Gayle’s parents about 10 years ago, but while her parents lived, she and Bruce stayed in a comfortable mobile home on the other side of the lilac hedge.

Gayle slept in the house with her mother in the final months of her life to better care for her and to make sure she didn’t have problems with her oxygen tank.

Gayle still seems dazed by her mother’s death. She says she’s lucky to have been able to be by her mother’s side at the end. “I knew how she was being cared for,” she said.

As for her husband’s legal troubles, she has to be pragmatic. After all, hers has suddenly become a one-parent family of four. She answers questions from clients of her husband’s installation business and does the billing and other clerical work. During the school year she also works part-time at Lolo School, which allows her to be close to her daughters.

Still, she worries about the girls and the rumors. The little humiliations hurt, too, like the other day when she sat at her kitchen table and over the telephone explained, painfully, her situation to a social services caseworker who knew full well what’s what but wanted to force her to come out and say it.

“Bruce isn’t working. No. Obviously, Bruce isn’t working, and he doesn’t live with us. His address is the Missoula County Jail now,” Gayle told her. A few minutes later, Gayle, dismayed at the exchange, said to me, “She knows me personally.”

Now, Gayle finds herself with insight into other situations, ones she never expected she would identify with. She watches the news differently. Recently she saw a report about a fatal shooting. She noticed the reporter talked about how the victim had been putting his life back together.

“You have to be dead before they say something nice about you,” Gayle said. “People can do bad things, but there can still be something good there, too.”

Particularly painful was the shorthand terminology used to sum up her family’s life: A shooting in a trailer, her husband’s DUI. While those hard facts may be true, they don’t come close to describing him in full, she said.

It can be tempting to view the world in black-and-white, to assign moral value to superficial details, such as whether a home counts its square feet by the thousand or whether it’s mobile. It seems this has become truer as Montana’s income gap has widened.

But it’s a mistake to allow the crappy incident at the Hafner house—and the two minute snippets on the news—to define the family and eclipse the all-too-human struggles of Gayle and her girls as they pull together the pieces of a decent life.

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