Eulogy for Friend
Length: 1495 words (4.3 double-spaced pages)
The phone rang in the early hours of the morning. Rolf G. informed us that Michael had suffered a heart attack a few hours earlier and had not survived. My wife whispered a few words I could not hear, sat silently on the edge of the bed for a moment, then turned to me and said, "Michael passed away at the airport, its just not fair. He was doing so well."
No, it was just not fair. We try to share with Michael's family, with Kathy, Molly and Tom, Molly, Clint and Wendy and their families the grief they feel, but it is not really in our power to do so. We are compelled to measure the loss of our friend and colleague, father and husband each in our own way and turn instead to what we can share, the extraordinary life that touched us all.
I spoke with Michael several times well before we had actually met. When it was determined that Marilyn and I were coming to a university in far off Montana, he called us in Washington, D.C. to welcome us, to ask questions about courses I wanted to teach, shared information about students and the university. A few weeks after the Fall term began that year, he came into my office and asked me a question about a Native American tribe that lived in the Montana western border region. "How did they subsist," I think he asked. I replied that they hunted and fished and planted crops, they were a "seasonal people." He liked that phrase. "Ya, Ya" and then he was back to his typewriter. Some months later, the first addition of his book Montana: A History of Two Centuries, written with colleague Dick R., came out. He gave me a copy and I was perusing through the early chapters, when there in the middle of a discussion about Montana's native people, was "Historian Thomas R. Wessel refers to them as ‘seasonal people'."
It was a small matter that hardly enhanced his scholarly reputation of mine for that matter, but I came to learn it was typical. A quiet, generous gesture followed in the years we spent together in the Department of History and Philosophy, and after, when he climbed the administrative ladder to the President's Office. I would soon learn that I was hardly alone as a recipient of Michael's generosity and concern.
After I became the Head of the Department and talked to other Department Heads, it became apparent we all had tales of Michael sending an encouraging note, supplementing an inadequate travel budget for some young faculty member, or nudging a Dean or Committee that was holding up an interesting proposal.
Michael was not a born administrator. He had to work at it. I always thought he viewed administration as a necessary burden, that he was determined would help faculty and not get in the way of their doing their job or in the way of his own scholarship. Well, whatever his inner thoughts were about administration, he got very good at it. But always there were two Michaels. Shortly after he became President of the University, he had his first meeting with the faculty to discuss an all to frequent budget crisis that seems to permanently afflict higher education in Montana. He called to ask if I were going to attend the meeting and if I would critiques the events for him. He wanted to be sure that the faculty understood the problems and how the administration would try to address them. Afterward, I wrote to him that the meeting had gone okay, but whenever he turned the microphone over to one of his staff, the faculty grew visibly restless and looked confused. When he returned to the podium, you could see and feel a change, the faculty listened more intently, nodded agreement with apparent understanding.
My wife, Marilyn, who in her job, for several years accompanied Michael on his many trips around the state to speak to alumni and community groups, witnessed much the same thing. Michael became quite adept at responding to alumni and others about losing football teams, the expense of new stadiums or why their child could not get into a class at the University. But when a question's response required some background information about the university or state, another Michael immediately appeared. The historian answered. His voice took on a different tone, his facial expression lighted up, his gestures and movement became animated and he would enthrall the audience with a little history.
For Michael was preeminently, an historian. He took enormous pride in his scholarship without any apparent expression of ego, a remarkable and singularly unique combination of virtues, particularly among distinguished faculty. He often mused about returning to the Department of History and Philosophy someday. We in the department always respond, "No, no, we wouldn't take him back, he had been in administration too long and was damaged goods." He'd smile, we'd smile. A private fiction, shared by colleagues.
Take him back, we could hardly wait. His department colleagues talked about the possibilities endlessly. His classes had always attracted students in droves. His scholarly production held us in awe, particularly after he joined the administrative ranks. It wasn't just that he produced so much work, but how he produced so much consistently good work that completely mystified us. His history of this state has become the model for nearly every state history that has been written since. The Battle for Butte, is simply the best account of the exploitive tendency in the West that anyone has written. And you cannot separate the author from the text. When you read the Battle for Butte, you are reading Michael's story.
Everyone who ever met Michael soon learned that he was a masterful raconteur. He could regale you with endless tales, complete with seemingly trivial incidents that illuminated the lives of Hollywood movie stars and moguls, Arizona land thieves, and Butte miners. Who else could tell you when Conrad Hilton, the hotel magnate, was asked for his advise to young people responded, "put the shower curtain on the inside of the tub?" Who would know that? Well, Michael did, along with a thousand more tidbits that breathed life into his account of the past. But there was more here than just good stories. This was the raw material from which a penetrating mind could mold a meaningful history. And the telling of them was more that just good companionship, although it was all of that. He was composing, structuring his next book, a kind of mental early draft.
Michael instinctively knew that history, if it were to instruct, to endure, was ultimately about people. All kinds of people. Horse thieves and Madams, judges and legislators, shop keepers, farmers and miners. It was his special talent to weave a seamless narrative filled with all those strange, weird, thoughtful, mischievous, creative and ordinary people he knew so intimately and I think loved.
Not too strong a word. Michael was a passionate man. Passionate about his and Kathy's family. Passionate about his grandchildren for who you knew he couldn't wait to share with them his Montana and his West. He loved this state and its promise as a physically beautiful, communally humane place to live, work and watch his family grow. He even loved eastern Montana and spoke eloquently about those expanses of empty land. Something I confess I never understood, but came to appreciated through his eyes.
He was passionate about this university and its promise as a seat of learning, a contributor to this state and the nation’s welfare. Recent newspaper stories about Michael always note the number of new buildings that have been added to the campus under his leadership and those he planned for the future. All of that is true and sufficient recognition for most. Michael, however, always knew that buildings were not the end game. Read his own comments and it was clear that in his mind the buildings were just the beginning. His pride as President was in what could be accomplished with these new tools. When he spoke at a building's dedication, it was the successes of his faculty and his students that occupied his thoughts. It was an invitation to those listening to share in that pride. He understood that for all its diversity the university was a community that thrived not just when it shared his vision, but when it shared the passion of his vision.
He leaves us then a living legacy, in the books he wrote, the stories he told and the university he transformed. So, here in this chapel on the campus he loved, on this lovely Montana morning, no goodbyes. Michael's influence was much too profound for words of such finality. Instead, a simple thank you to a colleague, to a friend, to a guy from Pomeroy who enriched our lives and passed through town all too quickly.