Eric Feaver, Montana labor leader & Helena city commissioner, dies

Eric Feaver, Montana labor leader & Helena city commissioner, dies
Posted at 8:41 AM, Jun 23, 2022

HELENA — Eric Feaver, one of Montana’s most prominent labor leaders and now a Helena city commissioner, has died.

Feaver, who spent decades at the helm of Montana’s teacher’s union, died Wednesday at the age of 77. He was a prominent advocate for public education and public institutions. He and his union played significant roles in battles over state funding for schools, tax policy, teaching standards and school accreditation.

“It’s impossible to look at any rule or law in the state of Montana around public education or public service that does not have Eric Feaver’s fingerprints all over it,” said Amanda Curtis, who succeeded him as president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees.

Feaver grew up in Oklahoma. After serving as an Army medic during the Vietnam War, he and his wife Ellen came to Montana in 1974. He started work as a history and English teacher in Helena, and quickly became involved in his labor union.

In 1984, he became president of the Montana Education Association. He led the union through 36 years and two mergers. When he retired in 2020, MFPE was by far the state’s largest union, representing 23,000 members – not only public school teachers, but many other public employees, including university faculty, state correctional officers and local law enforcement.

Feaver also served as a vice president for the American Federation of Teachers.

“He showed up everywhere all the time, he worked longer hours and harder than anybody else, and he was brilliant in both politics and in policy,” Curtis said. “He had a very clear distinction of right and wrong, and set the example of how to always be working harder than anybody else – and always on the side of right.”

While Feaver and MFPE often backed Democratic candidates, Curtis says he always put the interests of his members first – and he’d work with anyone

On Thursday, leaders from across the political spectrum remembered Feaver.

“Eric Feaver was a committed public servant and veteran, who served as a city commissioner in Helena, an educator, and a strong advocate for state employees for decades. The state and city of Helena will miss his unmistakable voice,” Gov. Greg Gianforte said in a statement. “Susan and I are praying for his wife Ellen, his family, and his friends and colleagues.”

Former Gov. Brian Schweitzer told MTN Feaver was a “giant” in the state, who stood out for the way he worked for everyday Montanans. He drew parallels between Feaver’s teaching and labor careers and his time in the military – when he was a conscientious objector, but still served in another role.

“He was in combat in Vietnam as a medic, serving other people,” Schweitzer said. “During the time I’ve known Eric as a leader in Montana, that’s his mission, serving other people – and no one worked harder at it than he did.”

Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen released a statement on Feaver’s passing.

“Eric spent his life in service to our nation, our great state, and our Montana public schools,” she said. “Eric’s passion as an advocate for our Montana teachers will be greatly missed from the halls of our state Capitol to the halls of our public schools. My prayers, and many of our OPI staff’s, are with his family.”

In a post on Twitter, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester remembered Feaver.

State Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, chairs the Senate Education Committee. He said he was sometimes on the same side as Feaver and sometimes on the opposite – but it was always clear where Feaver stood, and he was always an effective advocate for his members.

“He’s one of those guys around the Capitol who became an icon,” he said.

In November 2021, Feaver was elected to a seat on the Helena City Commission, saying he was ready to turn his energy to serving his local community and working on issues like affordable housing.

Mayor Wilmot Collins says the news came as a shock. He and other commissioners had been with Feaver at an event less than a day earlier.

“The commission is devastated by the news of his death,” he said.

Though Feaver only spent six months on the commission, Collins says he made a big impact, including on things like budget planning.

“He was always there looking at the details,” he said. “Some of the details we didn’t think about, he brought them out.”

According to the Helena city charter, the other members of the commission will appoint someone to fill Feaver’s seat until the next city election in 2023.

Curtis said Feaver’s legacy in Montana will continue through the work MFPE does.

“We’re all missing him very much, but we know that he would want us to keep putting one foot in front of the other and doing the work that matters for the middle class of Montana, so that’s what we’ll do,” she said.

Feaver leaves behind his wife Ellen, their two daughters, two sons-in-law and several grandchildren. MFPE encourages people to send their condolences to Feaver’s family at 901 Flowerree St., Helena, MT, 59601.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated with additional information and reaction to Feaver's death.