The Billings Outpost

Run for Ryan raises money for SIDS research

Special to The Outpost

A healthy baby goes down for a nap but never wakes up. First responders and the fire department cannot resuscitate the infant. A coroner, an autopsy, and subsequent toxicology reports show no resounding causes or unfound warning signs. The cause of death in all records simply states, “Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.”

Such is the case in the United State each year for 2,500 infants. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is defined as the sudden death of an infant that is not predicted by medical history and remains unexplained after a thorough forensic autopsy and detailed investigation.

In simplest terms, an otherwise healthy baby showing no signs of illness dies while sleeping and medical or forensic investigations show no reason for the death.

It’s a story that hits home with the Billings Scheels All-Sports family and the motivation behind the second Scheels Run for Ryan coming up at 8 a.m. Sunday at Shiloh Crossing. On Oct. 25, 2010, Scheels assistant store manager Greg Walter was in a meeting with an employee. Walter was paged for a phone call multiple times but ignored the pages.

When he finally broke off the meeting to answer the persistent caller, his wife was on the other end alerting him that their 65-day old son, Ryan, was not breathing. Walter sped past sales associates, cashiers and managers on his way to his son, only to be greeted by a Fire Department official informing him that his son was deceased.

The coroner could offer no further explanation than SIDS. All subsequent reports gave the same analysis — this was a classic case of SIDS. It’s an answer, albeit an incomplete one, for why Ryan Walter died that day and leads to more and more questions, most notably, what exactly causes SIDS and can it be prevented?

Enter Scheels, the family business that witnessed the most trying day of Greg Walter’s life and has been a support network for Greg and his wife, Sarah, in the aftermath of the tragedy and started the Scheels Run for Ryan in 2013 to raise funds for SIDS research. The 5K race has added a 10K this year but offers the same attractions as in year one.

Scheels generated and donated nearly $10,000 to the American SIDS Institute in Naples, Fla., after the inaugural race in 2013. It keeps the vision that every dollar sent in can help researchers take a step in the right direction toward a cure.

The course is designed by a competitive runner and validated by trial runs with other local runners. On race day it is lined with upward of 65 volunteers blocking driveways, alleys, blind corners and other pitfalls that not only could be hazards, but that force runners to slow down, thus affecting their time.

To add another element of safety, course marshals lead the route and “sweepers” follow behind runners to check for cramping or tired runners and garbage left behind. Participants crossing the finish line have Competitive Timing’s shoe chip clipped off by volunteers, which allows the runner to stand erect and regulate breathing after the grueling run.

The same timing company offers instant results, colorful race bibs, music, and an inflated starting line, all of which add to the pageantry of the event.

And then there’s the race shirt. Scheels graphic designers created the “Angel R” logo recognizable on posters and shirts and put them on a moisture-wicking tech T-shirt. The back of the shirt provides a box that says “I run for___________” so participants motivated to run for a more familiar SIDS victim, infant death, or really any other catalyst can make known who inspires them.

Scheels readily exchanged shirt sizes at last year’s packet pickup, wanting all participants to have the right shirt so they’ll continue to wear the shirt long after the race is over, a sight that warms the hearts of the Walter family.

While all these details may seem to point to a race geared only toward the highly competitive runners who sign for the Scheels Run for Ryan, race organizers point out that the race encourages walkers, families with strollers, and probably even the family dog. Scheels Event Coordinator Ellyn Bumgarner has made entry forms available at Scheels and an online option available through the store’s website (www.scheels.com), the race’s Facebook page (Scheels Run for Ryan), through www.active.com, or from a link off of www.competitivetiming.com.

The race at Shiloh Crossing kicks off events that Scheels will promote and lead once a new 225,000-square-foot store opens there. But for now all focus is on the Scheels Run for Ryan.

And along the way, the funds generated may just help eliminate more families from having to deal with the death of child where little evidence can answer the most basic question…why.

Last Updated on Thursday, 03 April 2014 19:25

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Kids, cops connect during Camp POSTCARD

Special to The Outpost

When the busloads of children arrive on Sunday they look “a little bewildered, like they’re wondering what did I get myself into,” said Yellowstone County Deputy Ryan Taylor about Camp POSTCARD, a unique camp for fifth- and sixth-graders held in June in the Beartooth Mountains.

“But, by Monday night they’re starting to come out of their shells and by Thursday they’re chattering away and you really see a transformation.”

Volunteers of America Northern Rockies organizes the camps, one in Wyoming June 8-13, and one at Beartooth Mountain Christian Camp near Nye, June 22 -27.

Taylor, thanks to the commitment of the Yellowstone County Sheriff Dan Linder and the YCS Department, has been one of the law enforcement officers who has participated at the camp since its beginning three years ago. Its name derives from the engagement of the peace officers - Police Officer Striving to Create and Reinforce Dreams - and without them there would not be a camp where kids who might not be able to afford camp could spend a week engaged in outdoor recreation mingled with team-building, leadership development and individual growth.

“These aren’t really troubled kids, but they may be at-risk kids. They probably come from homes where there isn’t any money to provide them with this experience. They may be kids who have been bullied, haven’t many friends, not much self esteem,” Ryan said. “We’re there to help them change that.”

Ryan first became involved in Camp POSTCARD. when he was a School Resource Officer (SRO), but he has stayed involved because he believes in what the camp accomplishes.

“I believe in it wholeheartedly. This will be my fourth year and, while I had some doubts in the beginning, I’ve seen kids whose leadership potential was buried come out. I’ve watched kids come together as a team. It matters,” Ryan said.

Dan Brown, a veteran officer with the Billings Police Department, shares Ryan’s view of Camp POSTCARD. Brown is able to participate thanks to the commitment of BPD Chief Rick St. John, but even if the department didn’t pay for his time “I’d use my vacation time to go. I believe in it that strongly.”

Brown is one of the first cops to participate, attending Camp in Wyoming, which has held them for a dozen years, before helping found Camp in Montana, now entering its fourth year.

“I’ve been involved since the get-go and I’m more excited by it every year because I see kids come who lack confidence or are remote and, in a few days, they change. They get active and involved. They’re upbeat.”

Brown, who has 21 years with BPD, once served as a school resource officer and knows how to spot the kids that Camp experience might benefit.

“They’re the kids in the back of the room, with their heads down, or wandering around by themselves on the playground. Not necessarily the troublemakers. Just not engaged. Without buddies.”

Brown likes the fact that a week at Camp teaches “ethics, values, morals” in addition to activities designed to teach teamwork and leadership.

How this happens is achieved with a variety of activities. Kids are challenged to climb rock walls and to scoot along in tandem on skis. They learn firearm safety and accountability. They see demonstrations by SWAT teams. The National Guard brings a helicopter and Stillwater Mining Co. dispatches a mine rescue team to demonstrate its skills.

Success is measured by many who were Camp kids coming back as Camp mentors.

“They’ve blossomed. They’re aware of how much Camp meant to them and they want to help others have that same experience,” according to Heath Steel, VOANR Executive Vice President for Operations.

Steel is one of the chief proponents of Camp because he’s been to all of them.

“There isn’t any Camp anywhere like this one where these kids build long term, trusting relationships with cops. When they leave, they know they’ve got a police officer they can call on 24/7 who will be there for them.”

Camp became a passion for Barb Skelton. An owner of Intermountain Equestrian Center, and a VOANR Board Member, Skelton said hearing kids tell what was the best thing about Camp convinced her to support Camp.

“When one little boy says it’s the first time he’s slept in a bed and a little girl says it’s the first time she sat down to a dinner table, or when you see a little girl show up with one beat-up pink lawn chair and a kid with just a dirty T-shirt and holey tennis shoes, you know helping out is the right thing to do,” Skelton said.

“I heard a philanthropist say that money won’t buy happiness but generosity does, and that’s true for me about Camp. I see what my support does and it does make me happy. When kids are happy and healthy, it’s always a good thing.”

Besides the $5,000 donation Skelton personally gave for Camp, this year Camp has found support from BNSF Railway Foundation, MDU Resources, the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, Phillips 66 (which recently donated $8,000), Stillwater Mining Co., and a host of individual donors, but “we still need financial support to bring as many kids to Camp as possible,” Steel said.

Anyone wanting to make a contribution to Camp POSTCARD may contact Dan Burkhart, VOANR Division Director of Development and Major Gifts for Montana, by calling 252-4118 or emailing This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Last Updated on Thursday, 27 March 2014 13:23

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Rocky names student employee of the year

Senior Noah Kiprono is Rocky Mountain College’s candidate for Student Employee of the Year, a competition with state, regional, and national awards offered by the Western Association of Student Employment Administrators.

Four students received honorable mentions from many other nominations submitted by grateful supervisors of RMC work study students.

Since his first semester, Kiprono has worked as library aide at the Paul Adams Memorial Library. “Noah is just the sort of student worker I hope to hire – responsible, friendly, and reliable,” said his supervisor Beth Dopp. “I see Noah stop his own studies in the library to help other students with questions – all the while off the clock.” From Nairobi, Kenya, Kiprono also assists the Institute of Peace Studies at RMC and is a student-athlete with high grades.

“Noah is a natural at working with people,” Dopp said. “His gentle and friendly nature puts people at ease, and his willingness to help others makes him a great asset for our library team and our general community. Noah is a self-starter.”

“RMC has a strong tradition of employing students in responsible roles,” said Lisa Wallace, director of career services. “We employ students in student leadership, as residence advisers, and in academic settings. Any student who receives work study financial aid can also receive those funds for off-campus work. RMC work study students support nonprofit or government agencies with which we have established relationships.”

Four other students recognized for superior nominations include Jared McCabe (’16), RMC flight operations staff at Billings Logan airport; Lynn Laubach (’16), website, box office, database, and vocal contributor at NOVA Center for the Performing Arts; Chris Gartner (’14), course delivery specialist for the RMC Master of Educational Leadership distance education program; and Erin Burns (’14), master tutor at RMC Services for Academic Success.

Last Updated on Thursday, 13 March 2014 21:59

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Students recognized

The following area students have received recognition for academic excellence:

• Megan Brakke, a junior at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn., has been named to the Dean’s List for academic excellence for the fall 2013 semester. Ms. Brakke is the daughter of Doug and Brenda Brakke of Billings. The Dean’s List honors students who achieve a grade point average of 3.6 or greater.

• Emma Fulton has been named to the St. Olaf College Dean’s list for the fall 2013 semester. She is a biology and chemistry major and a graduate of Billings Senior High School. Her parents are William and Elizabeth Fulton.

• John Johnson of Billings graduated with a bachelor of science degree in biochemistry (medicinal chemistry) from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University’s December commencement ceremony. Named to the Dean’s List at ASU were Adam Feralio, Shannon Jenkins and John Johnson, all of Billings.

• The following Whitworth University students have been named to the Whitworth University Laureate Society for fall semester 2013: Jason Bilyeu of Red Lodge, Michaila Grant of Billings, Sarah Gumm of Billings, Kangsan Lee of Billings and Madison Mulvaney of Billings.

• A Billings West High School student has been accepted to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. Maranda Ratcliff is a member of her school’s softball team and the National Honor Society. She is also a volunteer at St. Vincent Healthcare.

• Joanne Hoch of Billings has been awarded a merit scholarship at Oklahoma City University based on grade point average and ACT/SAT test scores. Oklahoma City University awards merit-based scholarships to freshmen who demonstrate outstanding academic achievement and potential, regardless of financial circumstances. Merit scholarship amounts range from $1,500 to $7,500.

• Rocky Mountain College has awarded the Montana Valedictorian Scholarship to five Montana high school valedictorians: J.A. Downs; Brayden Wacker of Melstone; Alexandra Chase of Billings Central Catholic High School; Jacob Woodring of Billings Senior High School; and Bobbi Bjordahl of Billings Senior High School. The award consists of a $3,000 Haynes Foundation scholarship in addition to a $14,000 Trustee scholarship.

• Shelby Dangerfield, a sophomore musical theater major from Billings, was among more than 1,900 students from Coastal Carolina University who made the fall 2013 Dean’s List. To qualify for the Dean’s List, freshmen must earn a 3.25 grade point average, and upperclassmen must earn a 3.5 grade point average.

Last Updated on Thursday, 13 March 2014 21:58

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Scouts build ice rink

Montana State Parks has announced that a group of Boy Scouts have constructed an outdoor ice rink at Cooney State Park, 40 minutes south of Billings.

Located in the parking lot of the Marshall Cove boat ramp area, the 30-by-60-foot ice rink is the Eagle Scout project of Aidan Harrington. Harrington, a member of Troop 7, Black Otter District, Montana Council, designed the rink and also coordinated the donation of all the construction materials.

Construction was completed by Harrington and his troop. Troop 7 is lead by Mark Sevier.

Harrington has been working on the plan for the rink with Cooney State Park Manager Jennifer Alexander since last summer.

“I think it’s great to have the Boy Scouts come out and build a skating rink that creates additional winter activity options,” said Alexander. “It has been a great partnership and I look forward to future projects with them.”

Cooney State Park comprises 309 acres along the shores of Cooney Reservoir. It is one of the most popular recreation areas serving south central Montana, while also providing irrigation. The park is open year-round and features walleye and rainbow trout fishing.

Last Updated on Thursday, 13 March 2014 21:57

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MSU Billlings women heating up for playoffs

By MARTIN MULL - For The Outpost

Don’t look now, no, check that, go ahead and take a peek; in fact, start staring. Because, despite little fanfare, there’s a darn good gig going on with Montana State University’s Billings women’s basketball up the hill there on North 27th Street in their hard-to-pronounce gymnasium.

Tenth-year coach Kevin Woodin’s troops are 21-6, with two regular season home games left, tonight and Saturday, both at 7 p.m. inside Alterowitz Gym. That includes a recent 11-game win streak, sprint kicking themselves atop their Great Northwest Athletic Conference and a NCAA Division II No. 25 national ranking.

Wow, top-25 with 310 lady hoops-playing Division II schools – not too shabby. They’re a perfect 13-0 at home.

Good coaches, and Woodin is certainly one with 150 career college wins coming into this season, want their squads peaking at season’s end. The snowballing hopefully rolls on as the Lady Yellowjackets play in their conference tournament after the regular season, commencing on March 5, and then participation in the D-II West Region playoff tournament, thanks to their exceptional season.

The winner of the eight-team West Region will be one of eight teams that go on to the national tournament in Erie, Pa., in late March. Woodin says only one women’s MSU Billings team has gone on to the Elite Eight event, in 1998-99.

However, Woodin coaches in the present, one game at a time, one tournament at a time. If fact, he can’t tell you where the national championship is to be held: “Back east somewhere, in Pennsylvania, I think.”

So there’s the setup. Local sports fans may ponder why this Woodin group is separating itself from the pack, with a chance to match or surpass the school’s all-time best season, 25-6, with the 1998-99 team.

Well, there’s a sign in the coach’s office, on the back wall, just over his left shoulder when he’s seated: Winners are ordinary people with extraordinary determination.

Take a look at this year’s team picture on the school’s website. There are no high-jumping sleek gazelles, or jitter-bug quick point guards. No large rear-ended wide bodies. Just wholesome-looking women from mostly rural communities around the state – all 15 players, in fact, come from Montana. One gets the impression they’re probably extraordinary in the classroom. They are.

“When we recruit, we first look at players who are going to be academically successful,” Woodin said, noting the team’s GPA for the first semester was 3.61 and for the last six years his teams have been in the academic top 25 in D-II. “So we’ll get perhaps that player who is an inch or two shorter, but has a motor that just never stops running.

“Coaching basketball is important, the Xs and Os, but as coaches we work on building team chemistry, to beat teams by communication, to play hard, and to have a closeness, the coaches with the players and the players with one another. A strong bond is important for me. Teams just don’t have it, you have to really work hard at it, and we do.

“We’ve been lucky. All our players are from Montana and that’s unique. We’ve rallied around that.” 

Woodin says he’s fortunate to a degree because most of his players come from good Montana high school programs. They’re used to winning and most come in fundamentally sound, a big head start. 

That’s the case with his three seniors, Austin Hanser from Billings Central, Fairfield’s Chelsea Banis and Bobbi Knudsen from up north in Malta. The girls took different routes to get to their final Yellowjacket season, but their varied journeys give more insight into the team’s success this year.

Locals remember the 5-7 Hanser leading Billings Central to a state hoops title her senior year. She was the most valuable player in the Class A final.

Then on to Rocky Mountain College, starting at guard in both her freshman and sophomore seasons. In fact, in her second year with the Lady Bears, she was all-Frontier Conference. That’s as good as it gets.

But Hanser, who also excelled as a goalie with Billings Central’s powerhouse soccer teams, didn’t feel right academically at RMC, which “just wasn’t the right fit for me.” So she transferred to MSU Billings with expectations of keeping the good, well, good.

But she sat, and that wasn’t always easy. She believed she could have started, but that’s the competitor coming out. She stayed team first; it’s ingrained in her, and Coach Woodin’s program stressed the same, so that made it easier.

In the meantime, she earned GNAC all-academic honors her junior year. Now in the final quarter of her senior campaign she’s been starting, right about the time the team is peaking. That’s not coincidence.

“Austin is a fireball, she does the dirty work for us, getting a steal, taking the charge,” Woodin said. “She enjoys getting everyone pumped up, when someone hits a three or takes a charge.”

In a roundabout way, Banis landed at MSU Billings after spending four years at the university’s main campus in Bozeman. The 6-4 center got a full-ride scholarship after a stellar career at Fairfield, where they farm, go to church, play sports and win state titles.

Like Hanser, Banis played well from the start at Montana State, averaging double figures as a Lady Bobcat freshman until she blew her knee out. She medical redshirted a season and came back with a productive sophomore season, but saw diminished playing time her junior year.

In the meantime she graduated in four years, like most responsible students do, and liked MSU-Billings master’s degree program in health administration.

“I really wasn’t thinking about playing basketball here; I just wanted to start my master’s degree,” Banis said. “I thought in Bozeman they really didn’t take the time to get to know you as a person, you were just a player in their program. But here, I saw it was different with Coach Woodin. He cares about his players, he takes the time to get to know you, and that was one reason I decided to come back and play my last year.”

The coach said he was lucky to talk Banis into playing. Lucky is probably too weak a word.

Real lucky, or really, really lucky. A big player with a nice soft shooting touch, she is the team’s second leading scorer and has taken some of the rebounding pressure off junior forwards Janiel Olson and Shepherd’s Kayleen Goggins.

Faith is part of her life, Philippians 4:13 her favorite Bible verse. I can do anything through Him, who gives me strength. Banis hopes to own and operate a home health care business in the future, probably near hometown Fairfield. Seems like she’ll have strong backing.

Five seasons back, Woodin had one of his only sub-.500 seasons. Since then it’s been a rise up – 16, 17 and 18 wins. And now this season.

The elevation started when Knudsen arrived on campus. She cracked into the starting lineup about 17 games into her freshman season and has been there ever since. She has scored at least 17 points a game the last three seasons, and she also leads the team in assists. 

She’s good. She’s All-American good at 5 feet 8 inches. One of the best players in the country, says her coach. Each year, Woodin says, Knudsen has stepped up her point guard leadership, it’s vocal now, before it was by example.

She’s a gym rat. A fit, sculptured one at that, with comely features.  Teammate Monica Grimsrud remembers the team having a full practice, followed by the MSU Billings volleyball team practicing. And there was Knudsen, says Grimsrud, waiting at the door for the volleyballers to finish, itching to get into the gym and shoot – all by herself into the night.  

Why so many good athletes from tiny cold Malta up on the Hi-Line, Knudsen was asked. Her teammate Courtney Henry also hails from Malta, as does Kendall Denham, a future talent, who’s redshirting for the men’s team.

“That’s all we have to do in Malta. Play sports.”

Knudsen, a biology major who’s also all-academic in the conference, plans to go to veterinarian school one day. Woodin thinks she has the goods to play pro ball, perhaps in Europe, if she decides to.

For the seniors, the regular season ends Saturday night against the University of Alaska Anchorage. Senior Night. Maybe some revenge too; Anchorage whupped up on the ‘jackets by 31 in early December.

Take a peek.  No, go ahead and stare.  Pay the measly $5 and send them off nicely. A fine senior season. Fine college careers. Hardly ordinary.

Last Updated on Thursday, 27 February 2014 19:08

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Alumni give back

MSU Billings News Services

For Eastern Montana College Alumni Mark and Angie Dawson, the blueprint for life is giving back.

Central Montana natives, the Dawsons both graduated from what was then Eastern Montana College — Mark with a bachelor’s in mass communications in 1990 and Angie with a bachelor’s in elementary education in 1993.  

“It’s important to be engaged in things that matter,” Mark Dawson said. “For us, that’s being engaged with higher education, building positive relationships and the continual quest to provide a productive and positive working atmosphere. And, perhaps most importantly, it means giving back.”

Montana State University Billings has been a longtime beneficiary of the Dawsons’ generosity. Most recently, the couple’s businesses — Century 21 Hometown Brokers and Classic Design Homes — partnered with City College to create the blueprint of a groundbreaking project for carpentry students.

In September, the Construction Technology-Carpentry program teamed up with Classic Design Homes to provide students with the hands-on experience of building a home from the ground up.

Developed as a six-credit capstone course, the project will span over two semesters, requiring students to be on-site 25 hours each week.

The students’ efforts will culminate with the home being featured in the annual New Home Showcase in June, teaching students aspects of local home sales.

Dawson said proceeds from the event will benefit, in part, carpentry program scholarships and materials. Dawson said he anticipates the donation will be upward of $12,500.

Five students in the carpentry program and their instructor Terry Madtson have worked closely with Classic Design Homes on the blueprints and foundation of what will be a 2,658 square-foot house on Billings’ West End.

The ranch-style house, located at 4002 Wild Ridge Meadows Drive, will feature four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a finished basement, three-car garage and a partially covered back deck.

Formed in 2006, the carpentry program provides students with skills required to work in a variety of construction settings common in both rural and metropolitan areas.

The program is modeled after the “House as a System” design to integrate concepts with application of building a house from the ground up.

The two-year program coursework includes understanding building codes, blueprint reading and sketching, estimating, site layout, concrete work, framing, interior and exterior finish, cabinet making and installation and deck work.

Graduates earn an associate of applied science or certificate of applied science degree upon completion of the curriculum.

MSUB Alumni Relations Director Sarah Brockel said the project partnership is a notable example of how alumni support helps ensure the success of MSU Billings students.

“This collaboration is much more than building a home,” Brockel said. “It is creating a foundation of cooperation in the Billings community.”

Madtson said students involved in the project are gaining an educational foundation and an expansive perspective into the construction industry. “More important, they are making connections in the community which could lead to future employment.”

Brady Henderson, a sophomore in the program, said he and his classmates have already been approached by Classic Design Homes about summer employment.

“This has been a great opportunity to meet potential employers,” Henderson said. ”This opportunity has really taught us every facet of the trade.”

“It’s important to bridge the community and the University,” Dawson said. “That’s really what this project is all about.”

Dawson said the Billings building industry is always looking for skilled carpenters, foremen, drafters and project managers.

And although the partnership is mutually beneficial, he said the idea ultimately is to support the students.

“It makes sense to support the students because the University is generating the educated workforce required to support our local economy,” Dawson said.

In fact, Brockel said that of about 27,000 MSU Billings and Eastern Montana College alumni, nearly half are living and working in Yellowstone County.

The Dawsons’ most recent support for City College builds on nearly a decade of contributions they’ve made to MSU Billings and student scholarships.

In 2011, Alumni Relations presented Mark Dawson with the Exceptional Achievement Award as part of the 29th Annual Outstanding Alumni Awards. The recognition is given to alumni who have made exceptional contributions to society, their professions and the University. He serves on the Foundation Board of Trustees.

“Mark and Angie have been so supportive,” Brockel said. “We are inspired to have that kind of commitment from our alumni. It is public-private partnerships like this that benefit MSUB and our community.”

Last Updated on Thursday, 30 January 2014 12:09

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Student wins scholarship

MISSOULA – Harrison Cooper of Billings recently received a $2,000 Bonhomme Scholarship from the University of Montana.

Cooper, a 2010 graduate of Billings Senior High School, is the son of Mark and Carina Cooper of Billings. He is a junior at UM majoring in biology with an emphasis in ecology and organismal.

The Bonhomme Scholarship Fund was established from the estate of Peter and Elvi Bonhomme of Big Timber.

Last Updated on Thursday, 30 January 2014 12:06

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Novel looks at high school in Billings, 1988

FOCUS ON YOUTH

“The Last Good Halloween,” by Giano Cromley.  Tortoise Books, www.tortoisebooks.com. Paperback,  235 pages.

By DAVID CRISP - The Billings Outpost

Kirby Russo has a problem. A bunch of them, actually. His disengaged mom has lived with a slew of stepfathers. His high school grades are low. He is sent to St. Vincent Hospital for psychological evaluation after he wrecks the family car while trying to bump a bully’s bicycle. He sort of likes a girl at school but isn’t quite sure what to do about that.

Of such adolescent complications is cobbled a new novel by Giano Cromley, who was born in Billings and now teaches English at Kennedy-King College in Chicago. He sets the book in Billings during the Dukakis-Bush election of 1988, and he weaves a sweet and often funny tale of high school angst and confusion.

For Kirby, a high school sophomore, Problem No. 1 is keeping track of the Bradley-Returns Index, the daily odds that his most recent stepfather will return to the family home in Billings. The odds aren’t good: Bradley isn’t even Kirby’s real father, or, as he puts it, the Original Biological Contributor. That man blew through town as a third baseman for the Billings Mustangs, was gone after one season and never returned.

Nor does Kirby really care all that much for Bradley. But Bradley did bring a certain stability to Kirby’s unsettled life, and his apparent replacement, a neighbor from across the street, has little appeal.

Things aren’t much better at school until Kirby meets  a girl, Izzy Woodley, whose home life is even more troubled than his own. She dresses in black, cheats on a typing test, hangs out with cigarette-smoking juveniles and reads some really serious literature. They strike up an off-kilter romance that occasionally threatens to ignite into something more.

Kirby’s only friend, Julian, comes from a picture-perfect household that, it turns out, also is falling apart. So all three kids are carrying excess baggage when they commandeer a relative’s car for a drive to Great Falls in an effort to talk Bradley into coming back to Billings.

It’s not much of a plot, really, and not much comes of it. But Mr. Cromley has a light touch and a keen ear for dialogue. His observations on adolescent life may not be piercing, but they ring true. Kirby steers his way through life with an endearing blend of awkwardness, personal charm, humor, anger and defiance, trying, at least, to every day get a little better.

Fair warning: Not much is made of the Billings connection. Kirby’s school sounds a lot like Senior High School – there’s even a KwikWay across the street – but it’s called Roosevelt High. Reference is made to what must be Shotgun Willie’s, but it’s been renamed Cattle Call.

Odd bits and pieces here and there point to a Billings setting – the sugar beet factory, an art gallery on Montana Avenue – but this novel could have been set in just about Anywhere, America.

Perhaps that’s just as well. The problems of high school students as they negotiate the boundaries between childhood and adulthood seem to be universal problems, certainly not a Billings phenomenon. But the grace with which Mr. Cromley draws his vision of this corner of the world makes the book a welcome addition to the Montana bookshelf and perhaps a sign of more and better to come.

Last Updated on Thursday, 23 January 2014 12:41

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Student earns Black Hills degree

Christine Ray of Billings was among the more than 200 Black Hills State University graduates awarded degrees during the University’s 166th commencement ceremony last month. Ray received a bachelor of science in education in elementary education.

Last Updated on Thursday, 23 January 2014 12:39

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