Jim Elliott

On a table in the front hallway to my house is a photograph of two men who look like they are enjoying each other’s company. It’s not obvious in the picture, but they are reclined on a short two-step stairway that leads to the rostrum of the Montana House of Representatives.

For such an august place they are perhaps being disrespectful of the decorum that such places should engender. On the left in the picture is a much younger version of myself in my second legislative session. On the right is Francis Bardanouve serving in maybe his 14th session.

His face looks like it should be on a Roman coin, it is so distinguished, but in fact Francis was a rancher from Harlem, and he looms high in my moral and ethical universe. We had been reclining there, talking, when a photographer asked us if she could take a picture.

Francis was born to a poor ranching family. Francis told me he had to put cardboard in his boots to keep the dust out on his walk to school. He was born with a cleft palate and because of that his speech was almost unintelligible and up into his teenage years he was mocked mercilessly. He was a lonely child because of that. When he went to the café in Harlem he would indicate what he wanted by pointing to the menu so he could avoid the embarrassment of talking. He read. The legend is that he had read every book in the Harlem library, especially the histories of the ancient world.

Somewhere along the way he was able to get an operation to fix the cleft palate and his life became immeasurably better. He later married his speech therapist. His confidence improved to the point where he decided to run for the Montana House of Representatives in 1958. His House district ran up along the Canadian border and at one ranch he was told that they would gladly vote for him but couldn’t because he was now in Canada. He won, and he won every election for the next 34 years.

He was described as a fiscal conservative and a social liberal. He understood hardship and defended the poor and disadvantaged. As a freshman legislator he went on a tour of the Boulder Hospital where those who are now called developmentally disabled were housed. One of the residents took Francis’ hand and would not let go, so he went with Francis for the entire tour of the hospital.

Francis was assigned to the Appropriations Committee, the one that decides where the public monies will be spent. He would spend entire nights in the Appropriations Committee room going through the huge budget ledgers and when he got tired he would climb up on the table and sleep until morning. He chaired the Appropriations Committee ten times.

He would appear to doze off in committee meetings and on one such occasion a representative for the School for the Deaf and Blind was asking for a budget request of $2500 to buy a lawn mower. No sooner were the words out of the man’s mouth when Frances bolted upright and said, “We gave you $2500 for a lawn mower four years ago, What the hell happened to it?”

He bought his suits at J. C. Penny’s and drove old pickups that he bought at state surplus auctions. He looked like a rube and was anything but. At one hearing some high-priced out of state lobbyists pushing some kind of high-priced scheme were being asked questions by Francis.

Taking him for an ignorant hick they indulged him as he asked questions until it was obvious to one of their friends in the audience that Francis was leading them into a trap. Unable to contain himself, the man in the audience, breaking all the rules stood up, pointed at Francis and shouted, “That’s the guy I was warning you about!”

He was for Montana because he was of Montana. He was honest, humble, and wise. Francis died in 2002. I miss him daily. So should we all.