With their legacy of service, Montana’s Williams family makes community their business.
BY JACK REANEY
April’s mild sun casts shadows across a blanket of evergreens on the steep hill outside Whitney Williams’ Missoula home. The bright reflection— golden-green forest and big blue sky—does better than lightbulbs could, as Whitney and her parents gather by daylight around her coffee table.
Whitney’s father, Pat Williams, points toward the hill. It’s part of the Rattlesnake Wilderness, which he earned federal protection for during his 18-year tenure on Capitol Hill.
“There’s not a rattlesnake in that land, that we know of,” he says, laughing. “It’s got a creek that runs through it [and] from the air it looks like a rattlesnake, curving back and forth.”
Pat’s not alone in his political clout: both Whitney and Pat’s wife, Carol, hold their own resumes of public service to the state their family has called home for six generations. Service runs in the Williams family like the gushing rivers that are the lifeblood of Montana.
It’s true for Whitney and her two siblings. “There was never a moment of choosing whether you were going to make a difference in the world… It was just the DNA of who we are, and where we come from,” Whitney says.
‘IT IS YOUR SKIN’
For Pat and Carol, they trace their political roots back to their upbringing in Butte, Montana, where they said one’s politics were woven into their personal fabric, not just a coat you can put on and take off.
“It is your skin,” Pat says. “You have to live with it all the time.”
“Everything was political, and everyone in Butte had an opinion about something going on,” Carol adds.
A three-term member of the Montana Legislature, Carol was first inspired by politics as a 10-year-old in Butte.
“I was out campaigning for a guy running for constable,” she recalls. “And I don’t even know what a constable does, but he was a next-door neighbor and a friend of ours, and so I thought he’d be a good constable.”
Growing up in Butte, Pat’s interest in public policy was a guiding hand that eventually nudged him all the way to Washington D.C. where he became Montana’s longest-consecutive-serving congressman.
“It wasn’t family, it was community,” he says.
Here in Whitney’s apartment in Missoula’s Rattlesnake neighborhood, just 2 miles from their own home, Pat and Carol present just as much as a married couple of 58 years as they do legends of Montana politics.
Pat speaks in baseball metaphors and Carol answers questions with stories while Whitney plays the part of daughter, nudging along and filling in their wise, drifting narratives. She recalls growing up on the campaign trail, eventually moving from Montana to Virginia and Maryland.
“There was never a moment of choosing whether you were going to make a difference in the world… It was just the DNA of who we are, and where we come from.” – Whitney Williams
“We had papercuts from stuffing mailings, licking envelopes,” Whitney starts, but Pat interjects.
“Well, I might have had you do a little campaign work,” he admits.
“Oh my gosh, knocking on doors, talking to people about voting for Dad,” Whitney continues. “Parades, holy smokes— every Fourth of July parade ever—I was in with some board weighing me down that said ‘Pat Williams’ on it.”
“We all show up for each other too,” Whitney says. “That’s a thing in our family.”
BUILDING THE LEGACY
Pat was a sixth-grade teacher in Butte for seven years before he ran for Butte’s District 23 in the Montana House of Representatives. As a state legislator, he was inspired to fight for education.
“There’s little in life that’s more important than education,” Pat says. “Whether you get it only from your parents—this happens in many nations—or you get it from this sparkling array of brilliant institutions in America that have provided [some] Americans with the best education in the world.”
After a successful transition into politics, he says he wanted to win again.
“And serve,” Pat adds. “Do what you ran to do, see some of the changes you want to make—make ’em. It’s a powerful feeling.”
He spent 18 years working in Helena before reaching Capitol Hill, where he translated his passion for education into federal legislation. He supported the College Middle Income Assistance Act and served as chairman of the Post-Secondary Education Committee. He led the effort to create Tribal Community Colleges across the country and advocated for children with disabilities.
Also an advocate for the arts, Pat fought hard in the late ’80s for—and helped save—the National Endowment for the Arts, in perhaps his most recognizable achievement in Congress.
“Arts are about creativity,” Pat says in slow, careful measure. “America’s creativeness, its ability to explore and expand and understand, is in large measure a key to our greatness as a country.”
Pat took federal office on the heels of the Wilderness Act of 1964 and in the midst of a rising environmental movement, momentum that favored his environmental agenda: to “protect and freeze into place” Montana’s wild places that he grew up around. Pat hunted for “wilderness with a big ‘W’” as a member of the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, now called the Natural Resources Committee.
He earned Wilderness designation, Congress’ strongest protection, across Eastern Montana’s “fragile, wonderful” ecosystems, southwest Montana’s Lee Metcalf Wilderness and the Rattlesnake Wilderness outside Missoula. He also led a campaign to designate a total of nearly one million acres of Wilderness across Montana, which passed through Congress before being vetoed by President Ronald Reagan.
Carol moved to D.C. with Pat in 1979, where she became active in the nation’s current affairs. With Cold War tensions boiling, Carol founded an initiative called Peace Links to bring women into the conversation of national security.
“You’d turn on the TV at night, and you’d have some issue coming up before the Congress and you’d have six men telling you what the deal was,” Carol says. “You’d never have a woman’s opinion on it.”
“Do what you ran to do, see some of the changes you want to make—make ’em. It’s a powerful feeling.” – Pat Williams
With co-founder Betty Bumpers, another activist and wife of former Arkansas governor and U.S. Senator Dale Bumpers, Carol recruited congressional wives and women leaders from across the country. By 1985, Peace Links launched an exchange program with Soviet women. They focused on speaking face-to-face and finding common ground—and they didn’t talk politics.
“We toured them all around the country,” Carol says. “Small towns like Primghar, Iowa, to Minneapolis, to Las Vegas—we took some to Kansas City when the World Series was going on.”
Pat retired from office in 1997 and the Williams returned home to Montana. One year later, Carol ran into a friend at a bakery. The friend said he was going to quit the legislature, and he wanted Carol to run.
Pat told her, “I thought we came home to get away from all that.”
Carol respondes, “No, you went home to get away from all that.”
In 1999, Carol was elected as a state representative for Montana’s 69th House District. After one term, she joined Democrat Mark O’Keefe’s campaign for governor as his running mate.
During that campaign, Carol spent significant time in both urban and rural centers of Indian country, helping residents register to vote and educating them on voting. She and O’Keefe printed buttons with each tribe’s name, “Mark O’Keefe and Carol Williams,” and “vote” in that tribe’s native language. The Williams remember it is as a symbolic and unprecedented act.
O’Keefe and Carol lost the election, but the defeat didn’t overshadow the impact of their campaign, Whitney recalls.
“The next day, after we lost, Mom came in … and says, ‘Do you know what happened last night? We elected more Native Americans into our state legislature than have ever been elected in Montana or anywhere in the country,’” Whitney says.
The campaign drove new voters to the polls, and while it wasn’t enough for Carol and O’Keefe’s win, it was enough to get Native American representatives elected.
Carol waited a term before running again for the Legislature, this time the senate. She served a pair of four-year terms from 2005 to 2012, laying the groundwork for her activism around female leadership, as she became Montana’s first female minority leader. She eventually became majority leader, another first for Montana women.
“It was exciting, and an honor for sure,” Carol says. “But it was also a big responsibility, and you had a heavy load to carry. You couldn’t make a mistake. They were just looking for you to make a mistake.”
Carol believes she earned respect from both sides of the aisle. Chief among her notable accomplishments are the completion of her 20-year effort to establish full-day kindergarten in Montana, and with help from fellow senator Carol Juneau, the renaming of all geographic sites in the state called ‘Squaw.’ Carol and Juneau worked with tribal groups for 12 years, choosing names that had meaning in Indigenous culture.
Her resume doesn’t mean those wins came with ease. Carol says that all her life, she’s known it’s twice as hard for a woman to do the same thing that a man does. She flashes back to 1964.
Carol was a college student hoping to attend law school at the University of Montana. Her father set up a meeting with the longtime dean. She remembers it being a nice visit, until the dean insisted on walking her back to her car.
“When we got to my car, he said, ‘you know dear, women want to marry lawyers. They don’t want to be lawyers,’” Carol recalls.
Carol told the dean she was going to marry a teacher in a few weeks.
“When I got in the car and started home, I realized I wasn’t going to get into law school,” she says. “That year, only one woman was accepted into law school … That was an eye opener for me.”
Carol’s service paved the way for many more women—including her daughter.
CARRY THE TORCH
Whitney nods along at the coffee table as her parents recount their careers, even though she’s heard the stories a hundred times, and lived through many of them.
Born of these two catalysts of change, Whitney says she’s inspired by optimists, people “who [believe] that things are gonna get better and that we just have to do everything we can to fight for that future we believe can be true,” she says.
That attitude inspired Whitney to run for governor in Montana, a state where only one other woman has ever served in that office.
Whitney put in her bid for the state’s highest office during the 2020 election, running on platforms reminiscent of her parents’ values: Whitney pushed universal pre-K education, public school funding, reproductive freedom and healthcare funding for women.
As she campaigned, Whitney recalls kids thinking it was a normal thing for a woman to run for governor of Montana. Unfortunately, she says, it wasn’t. “There’s only been a few who have ever run, and one who’s ever won,” she said.
Whitney lost the primary election by 10 points to established Montana Democrat Mike Cooney, who went on to lose the race to now-Governor Greg Gianforte. Whitney said she ran because she felt she was the right leader for a moment when democracy was at risk. She believes the Montana Legislature needs to reflect the state’s diversity. She says it has been improving—Montana has more Native American representatives than any state, and more women earn seats with every election—but the needle must continue to move, she says, “until we start to reflect who we actually are, like, moderate folks who just want the best for our community. That means we listen to people, that means we engage people,” she says.
She argues that Montanans are “more alike than we are unalike,” a sentiment she repeated all along her 56-county tour of the state during her campaign (her statewide journey was cut short due to the pandemic).
“I think even here in Montana we really do agree with each other much more than we disagree,” she says now. “I wish political people would point that out a little more often.”
Whitney doesn’t say whether she’ll run again, but offers: “You don’t know your future self.” She’s got plenty on her plate, for what it’s worth.
Whitney is the founder and CEO of williamsworks, a social impact consultancy which advises Fortune 500 companies and private citizens on addressing global challenges through activism, philanthropy, public policy and social entrepreneurship.
In 20 years, Whitney and her clients have launched the Eastern Congo Initiative to support Congolese-led community organizations, revitalized Puerto Rico’s coffee industry in the wake of Hurricane Maria and built skate parks around Montana—the fruit of a partnership with Jeff Ament, co-founding bass guitarist of Pearl Jam and native of Big Sandy, Montana.
Not long after founding the band 33 years ago, Ament decided to start building world-class skate parks across rural and isolated places in the West, mostly in Montana. He recently opened two skate parks on the reservation of the Crow Nation.
“Those kids down there have a new safe and fun outdoor activity,” Whitney says. “You talk to those young skaters across the state, particularly in those more rural places … They will tell you how centrally important these places have become for community—making friends, learning life lessons, taking care of one another.”
Through williamsworks, Whitney is doing work that parallels Pat and Carol’s, just in a different venue.
Though retired from office, both Pat and Carol remain active. Carol co-founded an organization called the Montana Majority Pact—since renamed “Carol’s List”—to inspire Democratic, pro-choice women to run for public office in Montana. The nonprofit continues to help candidates on Carol’s List fundraise and campaign.
“We’re excited [that] for the last three sessions, the majority of Democrats in the Montana Legislature are women. That was just a total turnaround,” Carol says.
Since his own retirement, Pat has written for 20 newspapers, taught at the University of Montana, and still gives speeches. Carol jokes that some of those speeches are now held impromptu in coffee shops.
Four of the five Williams live in Missoula— Whitney’s sister Erin serves on the Montana State Board of Behavioral Health and spent 27 years with a nonprofit providing shelter and care for children facing abuse, neglect, trauma and substance use risks.
Here’s an American family that sticks together in Montana, fighting for their vision of the last best place where they trace multi-generational roots, and serving those communities. If their names and titles are forgotten, their leadership and un-bargaining service will have blazed a trail for Montanans
Integrity, Whitney says, is willingness to fight for your beliefs, despite the consequences. Pat and Carol agree that integrity is honesty and staying true to your word.
Here’s an American family that knows what they’re made of. Service is no façade for the Williams—unlike a jacket that can be removed, it is their skin.
Jack Reaney is an Outlaw Partners staff writer and news reporter based in Big Sky, Montana.