NewsPositively Montana


70 years of Billings philanthropist’s gifts live on through family

'We have a firm commitment to this community'
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Posted at 10:01 AM, Oct 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-21 12:01:31-04

BILLINGS - The Alberta Bair Theatre, the Ronald McDonald House, Family Service, the YMCA, RiverStone Health, St. Vincent and Billings Clinic. It seems everywhere you look in Billings, there’s a piece of former Billings oil man Philip Fortin and his legacy.

“This was always his home. This is really the only place he wanted to be. He was a Montanan through and through. He loved this community,” said Danielle Moore, the mayor of Palm Beach, Florida, and Fortin’s step-granddaughter.

She and her mother Lesly Smith, who also served multiple terms as mayor in Palm Beach, spend quite a bit of time in Billings. Grandmother and mother, Mary Alice Fortin, married Phil Fortin in 1968.

Moore was just five years old at the time.

“I called him Papa. He was just the nicest man. He didn't have children; he didn't know how children were supposed to act so he didn't know if I was good or bad, but he thought I was pretty good,” she said with a smile.

Phil and Mary Alice split their time between Palm Beach, Florida, and Billings, and upon his death in 1982, Mary Alice continued the tradition of giving throughout Montana, Florida, and New York.

Today, Moore and her mother each hold the position of president and vice president on two Fortin boards. Mary Alice Fortin’s other daughter, actress Susan Stockard Channing, (known as Rizzo in the movie Grease and Abigail Bartlett in The West Wing), is the secretary/vice president on each of the boards.

Moore doesn’t know the exact dollar amount the two Fortin Foundations have gifted to all three states over the last 70 years but says over the last 14 years, the board has granted about $170 million to all three states combined.

That’s something she says could have never happened without Phil Fortin’s, business mind, ability to run a foundation, and commitment to community.

“You knew he was smart, you knew he was a shrewd businessman, but he was very quiet,” said Moore, "He didn’t ever tell you how smart he was."

Quiet, but deliberate in how he worked and how he gave. “He was all about, that you wanted to give, to help people get ahead, but not teach them how to suck the life out of your community,” said Moore.

And that’s how the board operates today.

“We want to help you, because everybody needs a hand once in a while. But you have to be making progress towards self-sufficiency. Or, I hate to say it, you're wasting your money. It's a waste of time, money, resources because you want to help the people who want to help themselves," she said.

Eric Bayse is the executive director of Community Leadership & Development Inc., one of the organizations to receive Fortin grants through the years.

Bayse said with help from Danielle, Lesly and the board, over the last eight years, CLDI has been given nearly $700,000 to help build 65 affordable housing units, with more on the way, and turned a dilapidated gas station into a coffee shop.

Those sustainable, money-making endeavors can then fund the non-money-making portions of the mission. Those include helping at-risk youth and families, running a recovery home, and internship programs for the South Side Christian Billings organization.

“And so it really is creating not just an impactful need now,” said Bayse, “but it's also for many years to come, continually reinvesting back into the community, for ultimately the good of the community.”

“So we gave him enough of a hand. But he ran with it,” said Moore.

Moore said it’s the impactful gifts that make a difference, and the board tries to make sure it hits all the bases. That also means deciphering the needs of the communities from the wants.

“What do I want? Well, I’d like a cashmere blanket, but I’ll settle for a blanket. So we’re always very careful to try and judge the actual needs versus the pie in the sky ask," she said.

When asked what she wanted everyone to know about Phil Fortin, her Papa, she said, “It was started by a great man who had an incredible commitment to his community. And he must have done something particularly right, that we're still here 70 years later, that we have our entire board here, and that we're still committed to the community that he came from. “

As for the future of giving, Moore said Billings will always be on the Fortin list: “Loyalty was pretty much number one in his book, loyalty to his family and his community. We're gonna stick to that.”

All of the Fortin Foundation board members were in Billings this past weekend to celebrate 70 years of giving. Of course, the board also heard from organizations hoping that their cause or project may be added to the Fortin list.

All those gifts are yet to be revealed.

Positively Montana