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  • Writer's pictureEdnor Therriault

The End of an Era in Missoula, Montana

We're stumbling around in a post-Covid world now, and even though people are still dying every day from the virus, social and political pressures have pushed the CDC and other authorities to declare the pandemic "over."

Like everyone else, I'm sick of masking, sick of social distancing, sick of not living my life in a normal way. But normal is gone. It ain't coming back. The writing, though? It continues. I'm into the final sprint on a two-year project, "Big Sky, Big Parks," that is scheduled for release next spring. More on that later.

For now, I want to share an interview I conducted with a friend of mine who just happened to be the mayor of Missoula. John Engen was a popular mayor, and with good reason. He was smart, thoughtful, witty, compassionate and flat out funny has hell. John was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer about six months ago, and he died last week. He was 57.

This interview was originally supposed to run in a local glossy real estate mailer. I'd freelanced a couple of well-received pieces for them, but the editor got her hackles up when I took a pass on her request for me to write a glorified commercial for a local insurance company. She subsequently spiked the Engen interview, which I'd pitched. Oh, I forgot to mention--the publisher is a Trump supporter who must have gnashed his teeth over the prospect of running a positive article about a local Democrat.

Anyway. Here's the Engen interview. Rest in peace, my friend. Your impact on this town and its people will last for generations.

On a recent Tuesday in Missoula, Mayor John Engen shakes my hand and slides into a chair across the table from me for a lunchtime chat at a popular downtown restaurant. He’s looking relaxed with shirt sleeves rolled to his forearms, close-cropped hair, a manicured salt-and-pepper goatee, and clear blue eyes that don’t seem to miss a thing. A young server materializes at the table, eager to take our orders. Whether or not he’s aware that he’s waiting on Missoula’s top elected official, he’s surely unprepared for Engen’s wit, sharp as a butcher knife.

“Will you gentlemen be eating today?” says the young man, menus under his arm.

“I’ve never been opposed to eating,” says Engen. “Do you have specials today?” The server clasps his hands together, then describes a deconstructed cheeseburger that’s chopped up and served on a bed of lettuce, like some kind of stunt salad.

Engen looks nonplussed. “That sounds like something that could be a smoothie.” The 55-year old mayor asks me if I’d join him in an appetizer of boneless chicken wings. “Something to stimulate the appetite.” Given his well-publicized struggles with his weight, I’m glad to see he hasn’t lost his gusto for food. I’m in, I tell him.

It’s not just Engen’s weight fluctuations over the years—on this day he’s looking robust and healthy—but other personal travails have found their way into the local news cycle throughout his four terms. A spiraling drinking problem sent him into rehab in 2016, he’s had some marital indiscretions that became public, and he openly admits that he’s suffered from depression for most of his adult life. “I am who I am,” he says, spreading his palms. “I’ve got to be honest with the people I serve.” He is his own toughest critic, though, and faces these challenges head on under the relentless glare of the public eye. And throughout his four terms as mayor—the longest stint in Missoula’s history—he’s never shied away from transparency. It would be easy enough for Engen to hide behind the smokescreen of vague press releases and a castle wall of double-talking spokespeople, but that’s not who he is. Never has been. One word that is frequently used to describe him is “affable.” He speaks candidly of his alcoholism and depression, keenly aware that his own honest humility may be inspiring others who, like him, go through each day bearing the heavy burden of just being human.

Engen is a Missoula product, through and through. He graduated from Hellgate High School, where he wrote a humor column for the Lance. “It was called Life in the Fat Lane,” he says with a laugh. His self-deprecating humor shielded him from a lot of fat-shaming bullies in high school and serves him on a daily basis. The Missoulian picked up his column when he was a sophomore, and it ran weekly for fifteen years. He’s glib but not snarky, making him a popular auctioneer and host for several nonprofit events every year, and he serves on the board of directors for many of them.

Unlike many kids who grew up here, Engen wasn’t much into outdoor pursuits. “I was an asthmatic kid,” he says. He left the outdoors to his father and brother, both avid hunters. Engen, an avowed indoorsman, preferred the companionship of TV. “I try not to engage in the politics of personal preference,” he says of his disinterest in outdoor recreation. “I don’t need to be a trail runner to see the value of trails.”

After working in the Missoulian’s production department for several years, Engen went the self-employment route in desktop publishing. “My boss was an idiot,” he laughs. Having earned a journalism degree at UM, he was already keeping an eye on city politics when then-mayor Mike Kadas approached him about running for city council. He won the seat, served one term, then, again at Kadas’ behest, ran for mayor and won in 2005. He has been reelected three times since.

In his fourteen years at the helm, Engen’s biggest accomplishment is wresting away the city’s water system, which had been owned by private investors for more than a century, and putting it back into city ownership. It was a six-year process as the eminent domain case worked its way through the courts, but according to Engen, it was a no-brainer. Under private ownership, the water system had been slowly degrading while customers’ rates had been steadily climbing. By some estimates, the system was leaking more than half the water it carried. “It would have been irresponsible of me and us to not pursue condemnation (via eminent domain),” he said in 2017. “Kicking the can down the road was not an option. I think the community started to realize that faraway investors aren’t particularly interested in Missoula, Montana, nor do they know where the hell it is, provided they’re getting their (monetary) return.” Seventy percent of Missoulians polled were in favor of public ownership. In 2017, after six years and $95 million dollars, Missoula was once again in charge of its own water. The city has budgeted six million dollars per year toward repairing and upgrading the system until water loss is reduced to the required minimum.

Although he doesn’t seem to be preoccupied with his own legacy, Engen allows that the water deal is what he’ll be remembered for. “That will be the piece of business that I think has the broadest and longest-term impact on the community. That will make the difference for generations. It was a huge team effort. I mean, I get to take my little slice (of credit), but it’s such a great team of folks working on it.”

With 78,000 residents squeezed into our photogenic valley, Missoula is a complex town facing a multitude of challenges as it tries to maintain its funky charm while keeping pace with steady growth and the issues that come with it, none of which seem to have easy solutions. Homelessness and affordable housing, for example, are dovetailed conundrums that Engen’s administration is currently grappling with, and the mayor is confident that he can see a way through the weeds. “Over the course of the last two and a half years we’ve dug pretty deep and had a lot of people at the table to talk about affordable housing policy and what the barriers to affordable housing are. There are a million contributing factors here, and we need a little bit of everything, from soup to nuts.” The cost of land, he acknowledges, is one of the biggest problems. “Land is expensive. A for-profit developer is always going to have to factor in the price of that land and pass the cost to the consumer.” He points out that there are some opportunities for local government subsidies and regulatory changes to help make the construction of affordable housing more attractive to the developers.

“There are a lot of moving parts and pieces to the puzzle, and the easy stuff is generally done,” says Engen. “So now we get to, as a community, wrestle with these bigger, more complex issues. My experience has always been when we work together and think together we tend to act together in positive ways.”

Engen sits back and shifts gears as our server returns and sets the platter of wings on the table. He asks the mayor if he’d prefer ranch dressing or bleu cheese. “My response is both,” says Engen. “You gotta have a fall-back.” As the server sets down the dressing cups, Engen adds, “Oh, and can you bring me the bones that were removed from these wings?” The server looks at me, then back to Engen, whose expression is earnest. “I like to make a bone broth. But just a very small batch.” The server, not sure if he’s being messed with, raises an eyebrow, says he can check with the cook. Engen lets him off the hook (“I’m just kidding”). As the young man leaves, chuckling, I ask Engen what he enjoys most about his job. Missoula’s high-profile mayor dunks a wing into the ranch.

“I learn something every day,” he says, taking a bite of chicken. “Whether I want to or not.”

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