‘Kindness, compassion and humor:’ Missoula Mayor John Engen dies at 57
Missoula Mayor John Engen passed on Monday morning at the age of 57, just five months after making public his battle with pancreatic cancer.
Engen, the 50th mayor elected in Missoula and the longest-serving mayor, led a tenure of growth, a push for equality, municipal independence, greater housing opportunities and efforts to reform local government.
“John was one of the kindest, funniest and most thoughtful people I have ever worked with,” said former Gov. Steve Bullock. “He dedicated his life to serving the town where he was born and raised, and he went to work every day with a vision of how a great place could be even better.”
Among Engen's recent achievements, he created the Office of Housing and Community Development and oversaw the creation of the city's first housing policy. He also pushed to secure the city's water system from an international hedge fund and convert it to public ownership.
“The City of Missoula owns its water and will forever,” Engen told the Missoula Current in March as the city ended its legal battle with The Carlyle Group. “The benefits to this community are fairly monumental and many of those benefits will play out over time.”
The move to acquire the utility through condemnation was costly and controversial but later praised as a visionary step at a time of increasingly scarce water resources and climate change.
“John Engen exemplified caring for community, both as Missoula’s mayor and as a lifetime resident who understood that our community is stronger when we all do our part to help others,” said Susan Hay Patrick, CEO of United Way of Missoula County. “In John’s own words, he always enjoyed getting great work done with really smart people, whether it was through local government or arm-in-arm with nonprofits.”
Engen formerly worked for the Missoulian and later served on City Council. He was elected Mayor in 2005 and served from 2006 until his death on Monday. City officials and friends remembered him for his humor, his vision for the future of a progressive Missoula and his dedication to the working class.
He pushed to create the city's first official housing policy back in 2016 - a move he described as necessary to battle Missoula's housing challenges.
"I've become increasingly frustrated that we don't have a housing policy here in the city of Missoula,” Engen said at the time. “Nor do we have much intentionality around the way we make public investments in housing. The way we get there is to have a team dedicated to creating a policy and executing that policy.”
Born and raised in Missoula, Engen also spearheaded two open space bonds during his tenure. The result has created a ring of open space around the growing Missoula Valley, preserving access to public lands in perpetuity.
“John left Missoula better off then he found it,” said Tracy Stone-Manning, director of the federal Bureau of Land Management and long-time Missoula conservationist. “He understood that the open space surrounding our town – which is open to everyone in large part because of his leadership – is not only critical to Missoula’s economy but a fundamental part of who we are as Missoulians. He left us far, far too soon, but his service will be felt for generations to come.”
Under city charter, the City Council president will serve as mayor, that being Gwen Jones, until a successor is appointed by the City Council. The successor will be selected after a review of applications and the chosen candidate will complete Engen's term until the 2025 election.
Engen in March confirmed that he'd been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer but remained active on the job. However, as his chemotherapy treatment advanced, his presence before the public decreased. He made an appearance from home via Zoom in July when revealing his new executive budget before the City Council. It was his last public appearance as mayor.
This is a developing story and will updated throughout the day.
Comments on the passing of Mayor John Engen:
Dan Bucks, former director of the Montana Department of Revenue
"John was an enormously consequential mayor. He wrested ownership of the Missoula water system from the Carlyle Group and with that established public management of the Rattlesnake watershed—which in a few short years is already improving the local ecology. Dan Kemmis as mayor created the foundation for Missoula to transform itself from a large town to a city. Mike Kadas strengthened and extended the Kemmis foundation. John Engen built a vibrant city on that foundation."
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester
“Mayor Engen was a visionary who paired a quick wit with an ability to work with people to lead Missoula. He was incredibly smart and worked his tail off, and above all, he was a dear friend who will be sorely missed by everyone who knew him.”
Susan Hay Patrick, CEO of United Way of Missoula County
“In John’s own words, he always enjoyed getting great work done with really smart people, whether it was through local government or arm-in-arm with nonprofits. He was a giver, a volunteer and an advocate. That showed whether he was serving meals at the Poverello Center, serving on boards of directors of causes he believed in or raising thousands of dollars for nonprofits as Missoula’s most popular charity auctioneer.”
Missoula County Board of Commissioners
"Our hearts are heavy with the news of Mayor Engen's passing. John was our colleague in leading this community, but more importantly, he was our friend. He led Missoula with kindness, compassion and humor. Everything he did, every decision he made, was in the interest of making his hometown a better place. We will miss him dearly."
Gov. Greg Gianforte
"With a Treasure State-sized heart for his hometown, Mayor Engen served his community for decades. The city of Missoula and the state today lost a giant. We're praying for his loved ones and the people he served."
Whiteny Tawney, executive director of Montana Conservation Voters
"The Tribes are grateful to have called Mayor Engen a friend and to have been able to call upon him as a collaborator as well. We witnessed him many times stay true to his values, while also being respectful of other positions and points of view. We hope that whoever is appointed as the next Mayor of Missoula is also inclusive, and exemplifies the values that we know and appreciate about Missoula and the aboriginal territories of the Selish, Qlispe, and Ksanka. To his family, friends and colleagues, we offer our condolences."
Former City Council member Jesse Ramos
"The mayor and I certainly, and very publicly had our differences. Being on the opposite sides of the political aisle, especially in this climate, usually means a deep disdain for one another. This was the case for John and me for my first two years on council. However, anyone who knows John knows that this was not sustainable. We both quickly learned that we had more in common that either of us cared to admit. Over these last two years, John went from enemy to a dear friend. John's personality was infectious, as was his passion for leadership, and his sense of humor."