Condolences: Fall 2019
The family and friends of folklorist Nicholas Curchin Peterson Vrooman. He died June 26 in Helena; he was 69. He was born Aug. 11, 1949, in Rochester, NY, and his family later moved to Schenectady, where his love of history, community, families, research and storytelling began. In 1975 he traveled from New Mexico to Montana where he took a job as a ranch hand for Bert and Darlene Mannix in the Helmville Valley, and immersed himself in the cultural traditions of the Mannix family, ranch work, and the valley, including the little-known history of the region’s Métis people. Becoming Montana’s second State Folklorist in 1989, Vrooman worked with traditional and cultural arts and folkways across Montana; he saw himself professionally as a folklorist leading the Montana Arts Council to deepen its involvement with traditional arts. Vrooman also served as state folklorist for North Dakota. In 2010, he returned to school receiving his doctorate in history from the University of Montana, with the dissertation, “Infinity Nation: The Métis in North American History.” He also researched and wrote The Whole Country was … One Robe: The Little Shell Tribe’s America, which one reviewer described as an “intelligent, extremely well-written and thought-out history of a people whose past was obscure.” His latest book, Infinity Nation: New Peoples, the Medicine Line, and American Prejudice, will be published in 2020. Considered one the West’s most passionate and important folklorists, historians and creative spirits, Vrooman was always larger than life, and generous with his knowledge. Krys Holmes, executive director of the Myrna Loy Center in Helena, writes, “Nicholas is a part of the landscape, the stories, the songs, the rivers, and the place of Montana. There is so much knowledge that would have disappeared if not for him. The wingspan of his life and work touches three centuries. It was an honor to know him, to have heard that laugh, and to have felt his warm encouraging bear-hug greeting.”
– From the Independent Record, July 19, and Humanities Montana
The family and friends of accomplished Butte writer Edwin Charles Dobb Jr. He died unexpectedly July 26 of complications from a heart condition; he was 69. Born in Butte on April 17, 1950, to an Irish mother and a Cornish father, Dobb attended St. John’s Catholic School and graduated from Butte High School. In addition to his brilliant mind and gentle soul, he had a quick wit, a little bit of the devil in him, and was a true native son of Butte. Writing wasn’t just his career; it was a way of life, and came easily to him. Dobb taught narrative writing and environmental journalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He began teaching there in 2000, and was beginning preparations for the fall semester at the time of his death. A former senior editor and acting editor-in-chief of The Sciences, Dobb has been published in a broad swath of publications from Reader’s Digest and Vogue to Discover, Audubon and The New York Times Magazine. For the past several years he wrote predominantly for National Geographic Magazine. From 1998 to 2007, he was a contributing writer at Harper’s, and continued to publish in that magazine as recently as last fall, when he wrote a treatise on adoption, breaking down in Baja, and “the ecology of indebtedness,” titled “Nothing but Gifts: Finding a home in a world gone awry.” “I defy anyone to read that memoir and not be touched by Ed’s expressive genius, big heart and deep humanity,” said UC Journalism Dean Ed Wasserman. His love for, and commitment to Butte were immense. One of his proudest moments was when the documentary film, “Butte, America,” premiered at the Mother Lode Theatre in 2009. He was co-writer and co-producer of the film, which told the story of the miners who fled to Butte’s “Richest Hill on Earth” in the early 1900s. The film’s director/producer Pamela Roberts wrote in a message to the Montana Standard, “To say that Ed was kind, to say that he was a brilliant writer, to say that he was ferociously his own person, to say that he was charming, witty, clever … a good father, a faithful friend, does not begin to express what we’ve lost with his passing.” Butte and the Berkeley Pit were also at the heart of Dobb’s most recent passion project, “Extraction: Art on the Edge of the Abyss,” intended to coincide with an international movement by artists in 2021 “to raise a ruckus in defense of the Earth, our only home.” A memorial service will be held in Butte Oct. 19; RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.
– From the Montana Standard, Aug. 20
The family and friends of Billings entrepreneur and arts supporter Eugene “Gene” Burgad. He died Aug. 14 in Billings at the age of 68. Born in San Diego, he moved to Europe at age 21, where he worked on sailing boats in Greece; for the U.S. military in Germany; and on the ski lifts in Switzerland. He was well known in the Billings community as a business leader and owner/manager of The Rex Restaurant for 34 years. He was instrumental in helping establish the historic Montana Avenue district and was recognized by the Billings Chamber of Commerce for his efforts to make the community a “ONEderful” place to live. Burgad was a co-founder of the Magic City Blues Fest, which started in 2002 and still takes place at the Rex property. He served on the boards of the Billings Depot and Alberta Bair Theater, among others. He was a musician, a food and wine connoisseur, and storyteller who loved to entertain, lighting up a room with his incandescent humor.
– From the Billings Gazette, Aug. 17
The family and friends of music director and teacher John Phillips Varnum. He died July 1 in his home in Polson, surrounded by his loving family, after a long-fought battle with cancer; he was 86. Varnum was born June 23, 1933 in Fort Belknap, attended school through his sophomore year in Ronan, and graduated from Harlem High School in 1951. It was here that he met his wife, Alice Nelson. He joined the USAF, and after his honorable discharge in 1956, attended the University of Montana, graduating with his master’s in music performance in 1959. He was principally a clarinetist, but also played flute, saxophone and piano. The growing family moved to Helena, where he was the music teacher for Helena Public Schools, directed the Helena Symphony Orchestra, and drove the tour train during the summer. In 1963 the family moved to Havre, where Varnum was an associate professor of music, and later (1970) became chairman of the music department at Northern Montana College. He applied for the Teacher’s Education in East Africa (TEEA) program, sponsored by Aid For International Development, and the family moved to Kisii, Kenya in 1967, where he and his wife taught at the same college and the family explored Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda in a VW bug. Varnum also recorded Kuria and Gusii traditional music, and collected traditional African musical instruments. The music he recorded was eventually made into an album for the Library of Congress/Smithsonian Folkway collection, and he donated several African instruments to the Chicago Museum of Natural History. Varnum retired from Northern Montana College (now MSU Northern) in 1986 and the couple moved to Polson, where Varnum worked for five years at Salish Kootenai College as a grant writer. They continued to travel around the world; and the talented musician, intellectual, and Mr. Fix It also became an accomplished woodworker.
– From the Missoulian, July 7