‘He left a legacy:’ Missoulians, dignitaries remember Mayor John Engen
Martin Kidston/Missoula Current
With several hundred people in attendance, and to the sounds of Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen, dignitaries from across Missoula and the state on Saturday remembered late Mayor John Engen as a champion of the people, a visionary leader and someone bestowed with the gift of wit.
Engen also knew what to say and when to say it – a trait that put others at ease. And while he wasn't a perfect man, many knew, he led Missoula's transition from a town into a city, and he implemented policies that will serve generations to come.
His commitment to making Missoula a better place didn't end at 5 p.m., former Gov. Steve Bullock said.
“This last election, John was as excited about being mayor and the possibilities to continue to shape this city as he was when I met him early in his first term,” Bullock said. “He was so bold in his approach, and he typically led not by setting a course and demanding other people to follow, but by bringing people along, by lifting people up, and by working with others to reach that worthwhile goal.”
Under a banner-blue sky in Ogren Park, the state and city flags waving in the morning breeze, those who knew Engen as a friend, a colleague or simply as the mayor reflected on the qualities that led him to success.
No task was too big, the political risk never too great to avoid tacking a challenge head on. In this way, Engen's legacy will last for generations, both in big ways and small, be it the multi-million-dollar legal battle to bring the city's drinking water system into the public domain, or giving German potato dumplings to a constituent who was upset because he couldn't find them in the city.
“He knew when and how to inject levity and optimism into a tough situation,” said Susan Hay Patrick, CEO of the United Way of Missoula County and a close personal friend. “Humor and humility are invaluable leadership traits, and John exemplified them. He would tease me about being an optimist. He said he couldn't be one because he was Norwegian, but he was the biggest optimist of them all.”
Former Missoula Mayor Mike Kadas, who went on to serve as the director of the Montana Department of Revenue, said he first met Engen back in 2001. It was then that Engen asked Kadas if he could help with his mayoral campaign. In the end, Kadas encouraged Engen to run for City Council and, when Kadas opted not to run again for mayor in 2006, he urged Engen to vie for the seat.
“He ran and won and started his first term as mayor on Jan. 2, 2006. To help him get his feet on the ground, I left for Nicaragua two days later,” Kadas said. “This week, we lost a talented and beloved leader. Someone who was always looking for different ways to bring people together, and ways to bring the community together to accomplish something new. John is gone, but he has left a legacy.”
Engen, who passed on Monday of pancreatic cancer at the age of 57, went on after that first election to win four more terms, making him the city's longest-serving mayor. Over his two-decades in office, he led Missoula's transition from a town into a city, into a new economy, through a pandemic, the 2008 recession, and through budgeting seasons good and bad.
Along the way, he lobbied for more open space, trails and parks, free ridership on public transportation, and he expanded the city's boundaries. He pushed for smart growth and redevelopment, and housing opportunities for all, including those who earn the least.
He also partnered with nonprofits to aid the homeless, to build affordable housing and to address mental illness.
“He knew our community was stronger when governments and nonprofits work together,” said Patrick. “I loved partnering and problem solving with him, working on homelessness, suicide prevention and childcare, on many issues in which we each have a role to play. We were a good team, and now our team has lost its captain.”
Whenever Sen. Jon Tester came to Missoula, whether to lobby for veteran care or to promote job creation and infrastructure, Engen was often there. Tester said he looked forward to Engen's unpredictable introductions.
The two first met in 2005 on a downtown parade to promote their individual campaigns. Engen was “cool,” Tester said, “but what was really cool about John Engen was that he was driving a Mini Cooper.”
“He loved Missoula,” Tester said. “Even if it was a roundabout, he wanted to talk about it. But maybe the most impressive quality he had, as far as I'm concerned, was that he showed the same respect to a homeless person as he did a U.S. senator. He was one-of-a-kind. Public service was his life, but it was the right kind of public service. It was service to the public, not to self.”
But Tester also knew Engen's personal struggles, including his addiction to alcohol and his depression. He also knew Engen's sense of humor, even if it wasn't always appropriated, or how he stole the show when Pearl Jam came to Missoula to campaign for Tester's reelection bid.
As Tester tells it now, he and Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament were sitting at the Wilma before the concert. Engen was there as well.
“It was supposed to be an event about me,” Tester joked. “Before we got done, John Engen was sitting down with a guitar, playing the guitar in front of someone who knew how to play a guitar (Ament), singing a song that to me seemed pretty damned inappropriate. The fact of the matter is, he stole the show because that's the way he was.”
For the 700 employees who work for the City of Missoula, Engen was also a fair but demanding boss. Donna Gaukler, director of Parks and Recreation, said working for Engen was “fun, hard, challenging, and extremely rewarding.”
"He truly valued each and every one of us, just like he valued each and every one of you,” Gaukler told the crowd. “He would know our first and last name, and if he had a chance to meet your partner or even your dog, he knew them too. He knew what you did, he probably knew where you lived, and he knew enough about you that you knew you were special.”
Missoula's “First Family,” former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams and former state Sen. Carol Williams – who was the first women to ever hold the position of majority leader in Montana – remembered Engen for his fight for equality.
That included the passage in 2010 of the first ever municipal law on non-discrimination. Engen was ahead of the time, Carol said.
“This change was five years before the U.S. Supreme Court did the same thing,” said Carol. “Pat and I have known and worked for leaders across the county in our past 57 years, and in all levels of government, none were more skilled or caring or beloved as Missoula loved John Engen.”