John Merrill Montagne
John Montagne died June 15, 2008, at age 88 after beating metastatic melanoma, but succumbing to other health complications. Born in White Plains, N.Y., on April 17, 1920, he began an enduring acquaintance with the out of doors through experiences as a camper and counselor at Camp Morgan in Washington, N.H. His parents gave him a woodworking lathe at age 13, and he would appreciate the esthetics of wood for the rest of his life. Family friends and junior high teachers stimulated an interest in minerals and rocks that would lead to a career in geology.
From Loomis School, John entered Dartmouth College, where he continued to learn about the out of doors through the Dartmouth Outing Club, honed his singing voice in the Glee Club, became a speed skating athlete and developed leadership skills and a lifelong commitment to service as the senior class president. As a geology major, he attended the University of Wyoming Geology Field Camp, where Laramie native, Phoebe Corthell, caught his eye. Responding to the call for military service at the outbreak of World War II, John graduated early and, with an interest in the out of doors and mountain environments, joined the newly created U.S. Army Mountain Troops 10th Division. Phoebe and John married on a weekend pass signed by the future father in law of son Cliff and together began their way of life devoted to family, the out of doors, science and service. John and Phoebe celebrated 65 years of marriage last December.
In the 10th Mountain Division, John developed mountaineering and skiing skills along with friendships that would form a base for the rest of his life. After the war ended, John taught Army mountaineering skills on the slopes of the Grossglockner, Austria’s highest mountain, then he and Phoebe settled in Jackson, Wyo. John served in Jackson as school principal, teacher and coach, and then became a ranger naturalist in Grand Teton National Park. He and others noticed the need for a trained mountain rescue group. Using his background and friends from the 10th Mountain Division, he instigated and organized the first training for search and rescue in Grand Teton National Park.
With Phoebe, John returned to work briefly in the Dartmouth College admissions office, then followed his passion and completed graduate work in geology at the University of Wyoming. Armed with his PhD, he joined the faculty at Colorado School of Mines, but when 10th Division friend Charles Bradley began to build the earth sciences department at Montana State University, John jumped at the chance to live and work within the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. John spent summers studying the geology of Jackson Hole with U.S. Geological Survey geologist David Love, always bringing family along to share in his mountain adventures, which included canoeing, hiking and climbing. At MSU, John’s teaching centered around hands-on experience in the field, and the geology summer field course attracted students from throughout the United States. During the school year, John’s courses had frequent field trips into one of the best learning laboratories for geology in the world. As Big Sky developed, John and his students contributed useful information about the Big Sky rock glaciers and hazards of developing on unsuitable ground. Creating the first university course on snow avalanches in the United States, John and Charles Bradley laid the foundation for the snow science program at MSU. This led to establishment of the biannual “International Snow Science Workshops,” which blend theory with the realities of practice. John was also a founding member of the American Avalanche Association, and served as its president from 1990 to 1994.
While John joined the faculty of the earth sciences department, he also joined the Bozeman-area community. A longtime member of the National Ski Patrol, he led the volunteer Bridger Bowl Ski Patrol and served as president of the Bridger Bowl board of directors. As a member of Bozeman (noon) Rotary Club, he served as district governor in the 1970s and assisted with early development of Bozeman’s Linear Trail system. He used his amateur shortwave radio call letters, KE7LH, to stay in contact with friends and family. An active member of the Northern Rockies Woodworkers Guild, he developed a unique style of bowl turning and frequently sold his products at the Country Bookshelf. In later years he frequently led geology field trips for the Museum of the Rockies.
John and Phoebe’s Teton and Yellowstone experiences included friendships with field biologist and conservationists Dr. Olaus Murie and his wife, Mardy. Inspired by the importance of wild lands, John became a founder and later president of the Montana Wilderness Association and participated in efforts to promote wilderness canoe travel in Yellowstone National Park. John and Phoebe contributed to the establishment of the Museum of the Rockies, Gallatin Valley Land Trust and Greater Yellowstone Coalition. John and Phoebe embraced skiing as a way of life. Skiing Bridger Bowl or a backcountry tour with friends were weekly family wintertime events. They organized the cross-country events for the 1968 Junior National Ski Championships at Bridger Bowl, and helped establish Nordic skiing in Bozeman. Always supportive of ski and outdoor activities, John participated with his family in co-ownership of Crosscut Ranch ski touring center at the base of Bridger Bowl.
John’s wife Phoebe, sons Cliff and Matt and daughters in law Joan and Judy, grandchild Greta, step-grandchild Josh, and great-grandchildren Clary and Walker remember his unbounded support of our interests and total devotion to family. At several key career points, he placed importance of family and place of living ahead of professional advancement. We remember a person ready to share the joy and enthusiasm of life with others through service, and a person who appreciated the latest woodworking tools, the most comfortable hiking boots and the best outdoor equipment.
John’s parents and brother, Richard, preceded him in death.
A celebration to commemorate the life of John Montagne will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday, July 26 on the northwest lawn at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman. A main dish and drinks will be provided. Participants are invited to bring a potluck side dish or dessert. Please bring your written memories to be gathered into a book. An additional celebration will be held in Jackson Hole in September.
Contributions in memory of John Montagne may be made to BioRegions International -Mongolia, P.O. Box 6541, Bozeman, MT 59771, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, P.O. Box 1874, Bozeman, MT 59771, or the Unitarian Universalists FB, P.O. Box 7136, Bozeman, MT 59771.
Published in Bozeman Daily Chronicle on Jul. 6, 2008.