Mr. Dillon is dead. Miss Kitty and Doc had gone on ahead. Chester, too. So the biggest guy was ridin’ drag and eatin’ dust. But he wouldn’t make a fuss. If the job needed doin’, he did it. No super powers, just big, clear-headed, and competent.
Dennis Weaver came to Browning once in 1986 to film “Amy Grant’s Headin’ Home for Christmas” show. Bob Scriver, who was also in the show, reported that Weaver was courtly, generous, and patient. In 1951 James Arness was in Cut Bank to film “The Thing,” which was scarier then than “Alien” is now. It was in the early days of stunts and Arness walked through fire in a special suit.
We seem to be deeply invested in our comic book heroes, even as some of our local real-life heroes slip away from us. Two recent Montana losses registered strongly with me.
One was the Reverend George Harper in Helena, born on the fourth of July, 1923, in Salem, Ohio. He was a great big guy, a political force to be reckoned with, a star athlete, and the progenitor of five gifted children. His wife was his match. His partner in ministry, the Reverend Robert Holmes was a little shorter but just as dynamic with his own tribe of achieving kids. The children of the two men formed the Montana Lumberjack and Ballet Company which blew us all away with their sharp but hilarious political satire.
When I landed in Helena, green as grass and over-motivated to make a success of a Unitarian Universalist circuit-riding ministry, George Harper listened to my breathless declarations of undogma. Then he leaned forward in his chair and put the tip of one giant finger on my knee. “Mary,” he said gently. “God is love. That’s all you need to know.” Then he made a couple of phone calls to help me get a vehicle since I had no money. And he let us meet in the Methodist parlor -- no charge. That was 1982. George had a basketball court named for him -- there’s probably no higher honor in Montana.
Much earlier I got to know Dr. Robert K. West because he and his partner Dr. Marquette were the Scriver’s family “docs.” Born in 1921, in Great Falls, he was a different kind of athlete, a top-flight rodeo roper. Bob Scriver used him as the model for his bronze in the major rodeo bronze series.
What I didn’t know until I read his obit was that his original degree in 1942 was in geology. He graduated a year early, joined the Marines and served for four years. He was at both Iwo Jima and Okinawa. When he got out, he put himself through the University of Minnesota Medical School by taking boys from Camp Lincoln on pack trips through the Bob Marshall Wilderness. In 1952 he returned to Cut Bank to set up his practice. The original idea was that the two docs would spell each other, but they were soon overwhelmed and worn out. Marquette died of a heart attack. Doc West had an accomplished wife, the historian and writer Helen West. I’m not supposed to tell you what happened, but it was predictable.
The Doc went to Fresno, CA, then (1970) to become an emergency room doc. In 1981 he married a woman named “Billie” and that union was for the rest of their lives. She died just days ahead of him. Much of his time and energy went to Salvation Army medical projects and as much as he could manage went to rodeo events, where he was a strong competitor, and to backpacking through the Bob Marshall with his grandkids.
Sometime in the early Eighties, probably on the way to the Calgary Stampede, he stopped to see Bob and I happened by. When I walked up with my hand out, he was a little startled, maybe not quite sure who I was. But he shook it, wary but cordial. It was like shaking the foot of an eagle. (I do KNOW what that is like since we once had an eagle.) Some worried that he would lose one of his surgeon fingers to a rope loop, but he didn’t.
It used to be that heroes like that -- professionals with a sense of place, a strong spirituality, and a feeling of obligation to the community -- were what we expected. They were big physical guys like those Sixties cowboy heroes, but they were also very, very smart. Both these men were valedictorians of their classes. I often wonder whether it was WWII that created them or whether somehow their kind is just not noticed so much now. Have we lowered standards by letting women and minorities and people educated in other countries come into our churches and hospitals? (I’m not supposed to say that.) Or is it that the great struggles of the Fifties and Sixties and even Seventies had a way of calling out heroism in men and now the world is just too confused for Knights in Shining Armor.
Or is it that our tightly managed-for-profit hospitals and emptying churches just don’t provide the kind of platforms that lets these men grow and shine? Was their education different? Were their moms at home with milk and cookies when they were little and got bruised by life? Were their dads role models? It’s a puzzlement.
I taught here in the Sixties when the country elsewhere was metamorphosing so fast it had the bends. Now it’s fifty years later and people are backed way off from change, still not sure what happened. I know this: if I had had to pick out which of those kids in the Sixties would turn out to be the heroes of right now, I would have gotten it all wrong. For one thing I would not have thought Eloise Cobell could take on the US Government and win. Those 1950’s cowboy heroes were all big male gun-slingers who were a force for good. Eloise is a force for good, but she’s -- well -- SHORT. I love it.
But I mourn for James Arness, Dennis Weaver, Amanda Blake (oh, THERE’s a clue!), Milburn Stone, the Reverend George Harper and Doc Robert West. Giants. Walking through fire.