In recent years, “gobsmacked” has become one of my very favorite words. Unfortunately, I have used it in excess this past week concerning Missoula Mayor John Engen’s announcement that he has pancreatic cancer.

Damn. I’m so sorry.

I have, since I first met him many years ago, really appreciated one of John’s main characteristics. He is a very, very funny guy, and he’s used that gift since he was a youngster.

As a quill-driver (newcomers to Missoula may not know that John was quite a journalist), he always employed humor in his writings.

Whether it was during his years at the Missoulian, UM’s Kaimin, or all the way back to the Hellgate Lance (the student newspaper at Missoula’s Hellgate High School), John always made me laugh.

Much of his humor was self-deprecating, dealing with his weight.


In one of his classic oped pieces while serving as editor-in-chief of the Hellgate Lance in 1982 (his column was titled “Life in the Fat Lane”), Engen wrote about “three facts of life: armpits, bellybuttons, and toilet paper.”

Armpits, he wrote, were “odd parts of the body, meaning they have no practical purpose other than a breeding ground for odor and/or lice.”

“There is not much fun stuff that you can do with an armpit other than make noises that sound like an expulsion of gas.”

As for bellybuttons, while admitting they served little purpose for most folks, he felt the navel was a most useful accoutrement!

“My bellybutton is rather large, and it is not uncommon for me to carry a donut or my books in my gut-button. Believe it or not, I have had offers from textile companies to weave the lint from my navel into fabric for John Engen designer jeans.”

On toilet paper, Engen mused: “The toilet paper in this school is like sandpaper. Why can’t we get some of the soft stuff with flowers? I think it would boost student morale.”


John then turned his attention to the world of gourmet dining – remember Herme’s Hamburgers in the Holiday Village Shopping Center on Brooks (where Little Caesars Pizza is today)?

Well, Herme’s had run an advertisement in the Hellgate Lance in the previous issue, promoting their special: “two hamburgers, fries and a Pepsi for $1.”

So naturally, young investigative journalist Engen who “couldn’t believe it,” was compelled to check it out.

He discovered “it was true,” writing “Herme's $1 special consists of two ordinary hamburgers. The hamburgers are nothing special. Fries are included, and I must say the fries weren't bad. I didn't get the Pepsi. The impressive thing is that you get reasonably full for a buck. It's a good special, I suggest you try it.”

There was hardly a subject Engen wouldn’t tackle. Take skiing, for example.

Lance Staff 1982
Lance Staff 1982

Our young high school newspaper editor declared, “I really should ski. After all, I’m Norwegian, and Norwegians invented the sport. My almost complete lack of coordination stops me from doing a lot of things, and it would probably hinder my skiing as well. But that's not the real reason I don't ski.”

“I don't ski because of the physical law of momentum. Imagine, if you will, 280 pounds worth of me on skis going down a steep hill, gaining speed all the time. Who is going to stop me? I would probably cause a great deal of damage to towns surrounding ski areas.”

Back to food, there was John’s tongue-in-cheek-article on the “Worst Pizza in Town.”

“Luigi's Pizza and Rotor-Rooter Service: Aside from drilling out any problems your toilet might have, Luigi's serves a variety of pizzas, most of which are not suitable for anything other than flushing. Luigi's specialty is called Cess-pool's Revenge, which consists of Spam, kelp and army surplus bleu cheese.”

Next was “Bertha's Tropical Fish and Pizzeria: Bertha's specialty is, of course, seafood pizzas. Among the worst are the Kippered Herring Special and Diver's Delight, which consists of anchovies, sea anemone, and Bertha's special touch, goldfish.”

Finally there was, “Lyle's Lucky Roundup Ranch and Pizza Emporium: Lyle's serves the most disgusting pizza on earth. They are made of (gag) horse meat. The pizzas' names speak for themselves: Trigger, Mr. Ed, and The Triple Crown.”

I salute you, John Engen, “Mayor for Life” (as one short-lived Missoulian editor dubbed you), journalist, and – most importantly -  a very, very funny guy. Our thoughts and prayers are with you.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at

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