Montana State University Library’s Archives and Special Collection has created a searchable online repository of video interviews and transcripts of surviving delegates and staffers from the Montana Constitutional Convention of 1972.
The archive was created in recognition of the 50th anniversary of Montana’s constitution and is a collaboration between Montana State University, staff of Montana Free Press, bestselling history author Sarah Vowell and Jodi Allison-Bunnell, head of MSU Library’s Archives and Special Collections.
MSU, Vowell and Montana Free Press will celebrate Montana’s Constitution at a free, public event at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 22, in Ballroom A of the Strand Union Building on the university’s campus.
Since September, Vowell and Montana Free Press staff traveled the state interviewing constitutional convention delegates, staff and a journalist who covered the event. The interviews were recorded by Abbey Wenger of Montana PBS.
“I thought the 50th anniversary was not just a good time to reflect on the convention but also, from an oral history standpoint, this is the last time that we would be able to do this,” Vowell said, explaining the roots of the project. “It’s a nice time to check in with delegates that are still here and get their thoughts on what they accomplished, where they came from, to get them pondering the future.”
Vowell, who was raised in Bozeman and writes about her home state in national publications including The New York Times, said the 1972 Constitutional Convention, which rewrote Montana’s 1889 constitution, still frames Montana’s government.
“It is hard to imagine an area of public life in Montana that is not affected by this constitution,” Vowell said. “The delegates were often very ordinary Montanans — they were ranchers, moms, tractor dealers, very Montana-type people — who wrote this document, and what they came up with still affects our lives every day.”
Vowell said that 11 people who were connected with the 1972 convention were interviewed — six delegates, four staffers who worked providing extensive research to the delegates, and a journalist. The delegates interviewed were Wade Dahood, Republican delegate, Anaconda; Mae Nan (Robinson) Ellingson, Republican delegate, Missoula; Gene Harbaugh, Democratic delegate, Poplar; Jerome Loendorf, Republican delegate, Helena; and Lyle Monroe and Arlyne Reichert, both Democratic delegates from Great Falls. Ellingson will be on the panel at the March 22 MSU event.
The Constitutional Convention staff members who were interviewed included retired Montana U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, who was executive director of the convention before he ran for public office. Also interviewed was journalist Charles “Chuck” Johnson, then a journalism student at the University of Montana who covered the event for the Associated Press. Baucus went on to become the U.S. Ambassador to China before he retired, and Johnson, who will receive an honorary degree from MSU in the spring, is frequently described as the “dean” of Montana journalists. Both Baucus and Johnson will be on the panel discussing the convention at the March 22 event.
Other staffers interviewed by the team include Rick Applegate, James Grady and Bruce Sievers, who were all research analysts for the convention. After the convention Grady, who was then a 22-year-old from Shelby, went on to work for Montana U.S. Sen. Lee Metcalf and then later was a journalist and the writer of bestselling thriller novels including “Six Days of the Condor,” which was made into a film starring Robert Redford and still has a cult following today. Vowell said Applegate, Grady and Sievers were interviewed together, and, even a half century after the event, there was an obvious camaraderie among them.
“As you see them interact, you can still see how much they still care about each other and the importance of being a part of this big historical event,” Vowell said.
In all, the team filmed more than seven hours of interviews that are archived in the collection, according to Allison-Bunnell. She said that the videos have been fully live captioned and transcribed and can be searched by keywords.
“This has been a wonderful collaboration in the way it has come together,” Allison-Bunnell said.
Vowell said that Allison-Bunnell was a stickler for the ethics of oral history, “and we volunteers, coming from the world of journalism, needed that guidance.
“She and her staff were tireless good sports about completing some of the least glamorous, most important work of the project — producing written transcripts of the interviews,” Vowell said. “I especially appreciated her grasp of the importance of the convention as well as her genuine affection and respect for the delegates. She is such an infectious advocate for the hidden treasures in MSU's archives.”
Kenning Arlitsch, dean of the MSU Library, said the Montana Constitution is unique for the freedoms and protections it grants to Montana citizens.
“It deserves notice and celebration because it offers hope that people with diverse views can still come together for our common good,” Arlitsch said.
Vowell conducted several of the interviews. John S. Adams, founder and editor-in-chief of Montana Free Press and longtime Montana political reporter, and editor Brad Tyer led the MTFP interview team that included reporters Eric Dietrich, Nick Ehli, Alex Sakariassen and Mara Silvers. The interviews were filmed by Abbey Wenger of Montana PBS, and the videos were produced by Tyer and Vowell. Adams and Vowell will moderate the March 22 panel discussion. Others on the March 22 panel include former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot and former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau.
Vowell said it is important that the archives will be accessible to the public for generations to come. They will be able to both access the material and easily understand its impact.
“We asked questions that would get the (interviewees) to really explain to a current 19-year-old, and a 19-year-old student in the future who may not even be born yet, to understand how certain arguments won,” she said. Vowell said the cooperation among the delegates from throughout Montana is still noteworthy.
“What they cared about was: ‘How do we solve these problems for future generations of Montanans? ’It is so public-spirited. Their camaraderie then and now is very inspiring.”
Access the interviews at http://arc.lib.montana.edu/constitutional-convention/