This past Saturday, as our nephew and two boys wandered around the Rocky Mountain College campus, Beau and I sat inside RMC’s Losekamp Hall attending a celebration of life for my favorite college professor.
I didn’t know Doc McDowell had cancer until his daughter called to let me know he’d passed away. She asked if I, along with other favorite students from his 45 years at Rocky, would say a few words at the celebration of life.
The funeral was a mix of genres just like Doc was. He was a crusty old rancher with (surprise!) a PhD in ag economics. He shuffled around Rocky — a small, private college located in the middle of Billings and which some might label “liberal arts” or possibly “Christian” — wearing pointy-toed cowboy boots and a crumpled cowboy hat. And he always carried a thermos.
So, too, the funeral entertained seemingly contradictory elements. I know Doc would have had it no other way and in fact had the feeling that he’d planned the whole thing. Don Cooper strummed and sang “I Ride An Old Paint.” Three sopranos from the college choir sang, a cappella and sweet and high, the college’s alma mater. The minister read scripture from a Tablet. A son sang “Danny Boy.” The entire family came together for a rousing rendition of their collective history, sung to the tune of “Red River Valley.” Professors sat in rows on the left side of the building; ranchers on the right side of the building.
One of the speakers ahead of me at Doc’s celebration of life mentioned that thermos that Doc always had by his side when he was teaching. Though I hadn’t planned it as part of what I’d say, I just had to contribute this when it was my turn at the podium:
A few notes about the thermos. Doc always had it with him. He’d be teaching in a big auditorium like this, down at the podium in front of dozens of students, and he’d stop every once in a while to fill the cup on the top of the thermos with whatever was inside the thermos. Some of the young men thought perhaps Doc had a little more than just coffee in his thermos. But I grew up around cowboys and ranchers, and guys like that almost always carry a thermos. So, for me, the thermos made Doc seem more legitimate. I figured he was just a regular old guy who happened to know a lot about economics and business.
I continued with the words I’d jotted down as Beau drove me to Billings that morning:
I graduated from Rocky in 2004 with a degree in agribusiness — and that, of course, is only because of Doc McDowell.
I didn’t know what I wanted to do after high school. But my family has a Rocky tradition — my sister Sue graduated here in 1991. Another alum and family friend, Jim Almond, introduced me to Doc — and from the moment we met, Doc directed the path of my college education. Knowing I came from a ranch and wanted a career in agriculture, Doc told 18-year-old me that of course one could obtain an agri-business degree from Rocky! “The school, after all, is rooted in agriculture,” he said.
(Doc was perhaps the greatest recruiter the college will ever know. Rocky does not have an agriculture program. But Doc was correct in saying that the school is rooted in agriculture — it’s been a Billings landmark since about 1900, and truly did grow up out of farm fields, and today calls itself “Montana’s first and finest.” That said, I was definitely the only student there in the year 2000 in pursuit of an agriculture degree.)
Doc designed a personalized, custom-made college education for me. I took regular business classes with the other business students. Beyond that, a couple classes that Doc taught in which I was the only student! There were some independent studies and some books which Doc insisted I read. But what Doc valued most was practical experience. My agricultural opportunities on campus may have been limited, but Doc made up for it with the quality internships he arranged for me — one, at Agri-News, turned into my first job.
I remember one particular day. Doc had arranged an internship for me at the Yellowstone County Extension Office that semester, and so he and Roberta (Doc’s wife) took me to lunch at Gusick’s to meet with the extension agent. On the way back from that meeting, Doc’s Cadillac broke down and Doc, Roberta, and I were stranded on the side of the road somewhere between Gusick’s and Rocky. Doc was thoroughly disgusted in the way that only Doc could be.
I have a photo of Doc and myself in cap and gown on my graduation day here at Rocky. (Doc’s cap and gown hung on a coat tree to my left as I spoke.) And I’ll always remember him as the grand conductor of a college education that I am privileged to call my own.
Thank you, Doc! Rest in peace.
© Tami Blake