Shining a spotlight on six citizens of the Greater Yellowstone and their positive impacts on the world around them.

INTRO BY TYLER ALLEN | STORIES BY JODI HAUSEN

 

In the following pages you’ll meet remarkable citizens of the Greater Yellowstone discovered by Bozeman writer Jodi Hausen. They have all influenced their respective communities with their passion and tenacity, and here we give them due credit. We hope their stories inspire you to positively impact the lives you touch, whether intimately or in passing, for both have the potential to reverberate throughout the world.


MUSIC MAKER / Bozeman, Montana

 

As a boy from a central Montana ranch, Jason Wickens would sneak into his older brother’s room to play his sibling’s guitar. It wasn’t until he was 12 that he got his own strings to strum. Now 34, Wickens has turned his lifelong passion into the unusual enterprise that is Live From the Divide.

A recording studio and performance space, Live From the Divide caters to songwriters from around the country who trek to Bozeman to play for audiences of no more than 50 people. It’s a cozy place where Nash and Nellie, Wickens’ pajama-clad children, greet concertgoers in the lobby and patrons mingle over cups of sponsors’ whiskey and beer. Inside the studio, a yellow banner reads, “Long Live the Songwriter.”

A singer-songwriter in his own right—recently releasing his first album—Wickens is influenced by the Americana-roots tradition. Carefully curating guests from that genre, the enterprise has become a well-known entity within industry circles.

Wickens believes in the power of good songwriting. “A complete stranger, in two minutes, can move you, make you cry, make you laugh, and there isn’t really anything else like that,” he said.

Earning a degree from the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences in Arizona, Wickens interned at recording studios in Nashville and Bozeman. Not eager to tour as a musician, he spent three years working in oil fields until he could buy studio equipment.

The venue’s diminutive size lends a familiar atmosphere, encouraging interaction between audiences and performers. Sometimes there’s even some mild heckling as Grammy- winning producer and Wickens’ partner Cornell “Doc” Wiley introduces the show. Musicians say the space provides a rare intimate opportunity, “like seeing a long-lost friend,” said Missoula songwriter John Floridis, who performed there last summer.

Musicians also gain exposure through a syndicated public radio show airing on eight stations in six states, including Bozeman’s KGLT where the show got its start. The studio has produced nearly 500 live shows, more than 200 hours of radio content and many podcasted interviews with visiting musicians.

KGLT DJ Cathy Ebelke says songwriters don’t get enough credit so she appreciates Wickens’ mission. “I feel they’re doing something really, really important by being a home for songwriters,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how famous they are, they have the chance to play here.”


PARK BUILDER / Bozeman, Montana

 

Mike Harris is a man who loves big toys. He calls it “skid-steer therapy” and as Gallatin County Conservation and Parks Department’s sole full-time employee, he receives treatment on a regular basis.

Originally from Miles City, Montana, Harris studied government at Montana State University and worked for former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns. But it was County Commissioner Jennifer Mitchell who encouraged him to apply for his current job.

Shortly after he was hired in 2003, the county purchased 100 acres of land in northwest Bozeman and the Gallatin County Regional Park became his chief mission. Now, it’s a hub of activity with a dinosaur- themed playground, ponds, climbing boulders, picnic pavilions, a beach, dog park and sledding hill.

To say he’s committed is an understatement. Over the past several years, Harris, 46, logged more than 60 hours weekly and could be seen on that skid steer all times of the day. He was once questioned by police when they found him working after dark.

Harris reluctantly accepts praise, usually redirecting it to the thousands of volunteers who’ve helped;
like Bob Farrington, a retired landscape architect and Harris’ mentor, or Bozeman City Commissioner Terry Cunningham who organized and funded the dog park.

“I’m just the guy kind of band-aiding stuff together,” Harris said. “It’s really guys like Bob and Terry that made this happen.”

Farrington calls Harris a “jack-of-all-trades”: backhoe operator, irrigation foreman, lobbyist, nonprofit liaison, administrator and trash collector. “Mike is a different sort of animal than other government employees I’ve met over my career,” he said. “He has to wear all these different hats in order to make his position work.”

County Commissioner Don Seifert says Harris has a great affection for the park and the hundreds of people who use it daily. “What he’s done with the regional park is just phenomenal and he’s done it on a shoestring budget,” he adds.

Harris says Gallatin County’s trend toward developing denser neighborhoods helps preserve agriculture, but it leaves homeowners with smaller backyards. “People need a place close to home where they can recreate outside,” he says. “We’re surrounded by national forest and trails but you don’t load up with the kids at 5 o’clock and take your dog up to Hyalite every night.”


ADVOCATE FOR THE ARTS / Bozeman, Montana

 

Some women wear rings to indicate social status. But Lisa Lord sports bandages on perpetually shredded fingers wrought by her media of choice—shards of glass and mirror.

A mosaic artist, Lord’s swirling whimsical works grace Bogert Park and the Longfellow School in Bozeman, a huge retaining wall outside Missoula College and a permanent triptych inside.

Rarely working alone, Lord believes art spreads joy and peace, not only in the viewing, but in the creating. Her public art is fabricated with help from community volunteers, many of whom are not trained artists. “I see a creative aspect in every person and I won’t accept otherwise,” she says.

By all accounts it’s true. Her protégés appreciate her eccentric energy and welcoming mentorship.

“Lisa was very open,” said University of Montana freshman Chelsey Schraner, who assisted Lord with the Missoula College project. “She said, ‘Just go with the flow, do what you think will look great.’”

Lord hails from the Philadelphia area. She got her start in 1999 making handcrafted tiles and later apprenticing with famed mosaic muralist Isaiah Zagar there. She was artist-in-residence at Longfellow School where they called her the child whisperer. While serving six years on the SLAM Festival board of directors, Lord was instrumental in initiating the demonstration and hospitality tents, the latter of which gives exhibiting artists a place to escape the crowds or grab a snack.

The demonstration tent provides opportunities for people to see artists’ creation processes rather than just the outcome “so they can appreciate the value of the art,” said Salal Huber-McGee, SLAM’s founder. “She pays attention to the artist and what their needs are, and they really appreciate that. Being an artist herself, she brings that perspective.”

Lord is a witty idealist, rarely taking herself too seriously. When interviewing with Missoula’s Percent for Art for her first commission, she said, “I can succeed to the level of my own incompetence.” And succeed she does in her artistic endeavors and philosophy.

“An area without artists is dysfunctional,” she said. “Artists are the people who emote and are uncontrolled in their perception of what’s going on around them. They’re taking it all in and they’re translating it. So really, artists are translators.”


COMMUNITY CLOSET FOUNDER / Livingston, Montana

 

Caron Cooper isn’t simply executive director of Livingston’s Community Closet. She’s a team member running the thrift store, doing everything she expects of her employees, from stocking racks to cleaning the bathroom.

“It’s like shucking peas on a porch,” she said. “We get the job done together.”

On a summer day, Cooper sat on a shaded bench behind the store surrounded by bric-a-brac—a stone Buddha statue, a wooden windchime.

Raised in California, Cooper, 60, earned a bachelor’s in engineering, masters in Russian studies and doctorate in energy and resources. As a consultant in the Soviet Union for the World Bank and CIA, among others, she witnessed corruption and waste, prompting her to leave the lucrative job.

She moved to Livingston in 1995 with enough money to pay off student loans and make a down payment on a house with her partner. The couple soon had a son but didn’t stay together. Cooper served two terms on Livingston’s city commission and struggled as a single parent. Part-time work with the Red Cross became an opportunity to start and run a thrift store until it closed in 2005. “I was heartbroken,” she said. “My dream of creating a business that I could run with a child in my life evaporated.”

Unfazed, co-worker Jamie Plummer asked, “‘What do we need Red Cross for? We can do this ourselves,’” Cooper said. “And that’s what I needed to hear.” Within two weeks, Community Closet opened and has since contributed more than $400,000 to area nonprofits. It has supported 150 employees over the years and generated more than $5.5 million in economic impact and $670,000 in tax revenue, according to the Rocky Mountain Economic Development District.

The Livingston Food Resource Center has been a Community Closet grant recipient. “Caron has created a model for how a community can support local nonprofits in ways that are relatively painless,” Executive Director Mike McCormick said. “You don’t have to write a big check or give a lot of time. People can donate things they are discarding.”

Plummer has worked with Cooper for 15 years and she’s starting to understand Cooper’s decision-making process. “Business was not my thing, people are my thing,” Plummer said. “But Caron has taught me to think about the big picture.”


LIBRARY DIRECTOR/ADVOCATE / West Yellowstone, Montana

 

When Bruce McPherson became director of the West Yellowstone Public Library, “it was just a book-lending place with vacant rooms full of rubbish,” he said. Before taking the job in 2012, he was writing a book he found intimidating. “So, I needed to do something else.”

One of the first things he did was create a photo display of 50-some West Yellowstone residents over 65 who have survived at least 25 winters there. That’s significant in a town known for extreme cold and whose population dwindles to about 1,200 when tourist season ends. He filled vacant rooms with a collection of Montana-specific material and a children’s area. Recognizing the town’s one-third Latino population, McPherson brought in Spanish-language materials and language classes in English and Spanish.

But ask anyone and they’ll say McPherson’s greatest contribution has been to West’s youngest citizens. He initiated a no-cost preschool which quickly filled to capacity. When the city’s only other daycare closed, the need was nearly insurmountable, particularly for Latino parents working multiple jobs. He convinced city councilors to commit land and $650,000 for Little Rangers Learning Center which opened last spring, and where 70 preschoolers now attend.

McPherson, 74, grew up on a farm deep in the Australian Outback. He came to the U.S. to get a doctorate from Harvard University where he taught for three decades. He and his wife moved to Montana 11 years ago. McPherson is influenced by his father who was the mayor of their tiny Australian town for 25 years. “I just saw him do good things and it got in my DNA,” he said.

City Councilor Pierre Martineau called McPherson a crusty, old curmudgeon, adding repeatedly, “He’s done a wonderful job.” Perhaps it’s McPherson’s endearing accent that sways his opponents, but it’s just as likely his political savvy. “We joke that when we see Bruce coming, you’d better put your hands in your pockets and leave them there,” Martineau said. “He’s very persuasive.”

There’s a plaque hanging at Little Rangers with McPherson’s name that reads, “Thank you for carrying the torch.”

“He saw a need and found a way to exceed people’s expectations,” said Little Rangers Director Katie Ostberg. “It’s been a community effort, but the plaque on the wall says it all.”


IMMIGRATION LAWYER / Jackson, Wyoming

 

Rosie Read studied Japanese in college, but she spends more time speaking Spanish these days. An immigration attorney based in Jackson, she attended Purdue University intending to become a veterinarian.

A self-proclaimed control freak, Read, 39, has never had a drink. While attending college, she joined the straight edge movement in Indianapolis—a subculture of punk-rocker social activists who refrain from using alcohol, tobacco or drugs.

“The idea of straight edge is to keep your mind clear, so you can effect positive change in the world,” Read said. “I was lucky to find that community because it helped me learn about injustices in the world and seek ways to fight back against them.”

Spending weekends in Indianapolis, an hour from school, resulted in grades insufficient for veterinary school. Read’s mother eventually persuaded her to pursue law, using her passions to make the world better, she said. “Once I learned what power and privilege were, I felt like I should use what I have to help people who have less than I do.”

While a student at Seattle University School of Law, Read interned at the Northwest Immigration Rights Project focusing on domestic violence issues. Graduating in 2008, she moved to Jackson and worked in a Mexican restaurant where most of the kitchen staff spoke Spanish.

Read said learning Spanish was more important than passing the bar, both of which she did by 2009. She simultaneously contracted with Elizabeth Trefonas, Jackson’s only immigration lawyer; worked as a case manager at the Latino Resource Center (now One22); and waitressed at The Merry Piglets. Trefonas hired Read fulltime in 2010.

Former client Milessa Ortiz de Jesús recently joined the firm as a paralegal. Though she is Puerto Rican, her husband is a Dream Act recipient from Mexico. The couple anticipated a yearlong wait for an interview with immigration to get her husband’s green card. It took only months, which Ortiz de Jesús attributed to Read meticulously compiling 200-plus pages of documentation.

Fighting for the underdog is what Read loves best about her job. “People don’t typically come to me because they’re having their best day,” she said. “They’re having a rough time and with a successful case, I get to take this terrible thing and turn it into something good.”

Jodi Hausen is an award-winning journalist based in Bozeman, Montana, who has been published in Montana Quarterly, Outside Bozeman, and has had her work aired on Maine Public Radio.