James W. “Jim” Murry, top Montana labor leader and friend, passed away last October. On the 29th of August, his memory is being celebrated at a Memorial Service at Tizer Botanic Gardens, just outside of Jefferson City.
In the period of Montana history from 1965 to 1990, when Montana dramatically changed from being a corporate colony to a citizen-oriented state, nobody played a larger role in that progressive period than Jim Murry. He stood astride those 25 years like a Colossus.
Saying Jim was the head of the AFL-CIO for 23 years doesn’t do him justice. Noting he was declared the 2nd most influential Montanan by Lee Newspapers in 1982 is only part of the story. Jim Murry was a coalition-builder and champion of workers, the poor, the voiceless and architect of monumental social and environmental advancement. And there was no better true and loyal friend.
Jim was first a mentor to me when I was a 26-year old newly appointed Executive Director of the Montana Democratic Party, just as Montana began the colossal battle over the special sales tax referendum in 1971. We were colleagues in that battle as well as innumerable electoral battles over the years, including those when I was in campaign management.
Jim and I were roommates at Democratic National Conventions (boy was that a blast) as we sought to influence national level politics and policy. We were road warriors as we drove across Montana to mobilize labor and Democrats for elections and get out the vote, but also in the end for the funerals of Brothers and Sisters and friends and comrades who had fought the good fight.
Together, we were part of a larger family of warriors for economic and social justice, of first moving Montana toward our progressive ideals and more recently of defending the progress we had made as it faces a new right-wing assault.
We took memorable vacation trips to places from Las Vegas to Camp Tuffit – the stories live on. Like the brothers we were, our families were one big happy family that loved and fought our way through the years. We concerned ourselves with each other’s illnesses and injuries, which later became more frequent. We also loved the fall when we could catch Grizzly football games together and sometimes Cat games, too.
As Jim’s wife Arlene began to slide and Jim’s ability and willingness to take time away from her waned, our brotherhood took the form of drives by me from Butte to Helena so we could partake of one-hour meals that commandeered corner tables for 4, 5 or 6 hours. We laughed and snorted but also planned and conspired, even then. Perkins could count on a good profit from potato pancakes when we sat down together. We needled each other in good times (Jim’s way of not letting anyone get too comfortable) and shared tears in sad times. We shared stories from the past (over and over and never getting old) and plans for the future.
Every minute we spent together for more than fifty years brought us closer together. He remained a mentor. We remained co-conspirators of many a plot, sometime humorous but many times extremely serious and important. But he always remained my brother, my friend.
As his days became fewer, the Covid robbed us of getting together. I curse the pandemic for that alone, but we still had Jimmy Murry’s favorite weapon – the telephone – right up to that very last call.
So, here we are. Words cannot do justice to this larger than life man. But that’s what we are limited to externally – words. But inside me, Jim Murry lives on. With me each day, guiding me, acting as my prod and my conscience. Acting as a daily reminder that I still have time left to put in the hours and effort to make a difference in our great state and for its people.
Still time to help move us closer to economic and social justice. Still time to prepare others to accept the torch that we all must pass, so that our battles will continue until the little people eventually prevail over the forces of greed and power.
Evan Barrett lives in historic Uptown Butte after retiring following 47 years at the top level of Montana economic development, government, politics and education. He is an award-winning producer of Montana history videos who continues to write columns and commentaries and occasionally teaches Montana history.