‘His life’s calling;” City Council remembers Engen with laughter, tears
Martin Kidston/Missoula Current
Hours after Missoula Mayor John Engen passed away at his family home on Monday, members of the City Council joined department heads to share their memories of a leader they described as visionary.
Engen, who died of pancreatic cancer at 57, served the city as mayor for 17 years. His presence will be missed, council leaders said Monday.
“I look back on the last 17 years and I truly believe John Engen pulled this city forward and helped it transition from a town into a vibrant city,” said City Council President and Acting Mayor Gwen Jones. “Its identity continues to evolve, but because of his vision and leadership, he's positioned us well for whatever the future brings. He didn't deny change. He embraced it and made it work.”
Nearly all members of the City Council attended a press briefing to demonstrate their solidarity as the city moves into its new post-Engen era. Engen had seen dozens of City Council members come and go during his tenure, and he welcomed them each to local government.
Now, it will be up to the newest crop of City Council members to continue that trend as the city takes its next step forward.
“I really think being the mayor was his life's calling,” said Jones. “We were lucky to have him for so long. His wisdom, energy, passion and leadership – I learned so much from him.”
After nearly two decades on the job, it's not easy to summarize one man's legacy, but City Council members didn't struggle to hit the highlights. From Zero Fare ridership on Mountain Line to a recent rush of affordable housing projects, Engen had his finger on nearly all of it.
But the largest legacy will likely be the city's acquisition of its drinking water system. It came to be as a result of Engen's persistence and expectation of honest dealings – something The Carlyle Group strayed from, prompting the city to pursue ownership of Mountain Water Co.
“To me, the acquisition of the water system will be the one to last in perpetuity as the most important thing John did,” said council member Jordan Hess. “As we navigate the climate crisis, knowing we have the water system – not for sale to the highest bidder but in control of the residents of the City of Missoula – that will be the biggest part of his legacy.”
While Engen helped modernized the city's communication system for emergency services, created the city's first housing policy and famously played the comedic role on stage at the River City Roots festival, some smaller doings also received notice.
Among them, he helped spearhead the simple act of painting the rainbow on the street outside the Missoula Art Museum – a demonstration in that all people are equal.
“That's very symbolic of the culture he tried creating,” said Jones. “That's a hill we'll always need to keep climbing. He not only welcomed new people to this city, but he also honored those already living here.”
Engen was born and raised in Missoula and recently lost his parents, but his roots in the city ran deep. So too do the roots of the maple trees that now line the streets of the University District.
That was the vision of the city's early founders - an act they carried out not for themselves, but for their grandchildren. In that sense, Hess said, Engen also planted trees across Missoula to benefit future generations.
“He planted 'trees' all around this valley for our grandchildren,” said Hess. “He had this long-term way of thinking that will be felt for decades. That was the gift he left us as he left this world too early.”
Hess said Engen would expect the city to keep moving forward, and he praised city staff and leadership for making Monday a functional day despite the news.
Engen, Hess said, would know what to say on days like Monday.
“There's a joke that no one wanted to get up and talk after Mayor John Engen spoke. I'm mortified now that he isn't going to be speaking after me today, or at any point in the future,” Hess said. “He would know exactly what to say today to console us and reassure us. He would know what to say to motivate us. He'd know what to say to lead us, find common ground and bring us together. That was his strength.”
Plans for Engen's memorial services are in the works and are likely take place this weekend.