For Pete’s sake, build a bridge
I dedicate this column to a guy I never met.
When I started working at the Northwest Montana History Museum I began to hear the name Pete Skibsrud. At first he merely sounded like a man about town.
On a visit to our neighboring institution, Linderman Education Center, principal Jodie Barber took me on a tour of the beautifully remodeled facility and asked if I'd known Skibsrud.
She said he came to her one day, saying, "I bought a bridge, and you run [an educational] bridge program — therefore, we are friends." In short order, a large-scale sculpture made of pieces of the Old Steel Bridge rose on the front lawn of the school on Third Avenue East. Linderman students have since added pieces to that sculpture, making it an ever-evolving work, like life itself.
It's ironic that Skibsrud occupied himself with tearing apart an old bridge when so much of what he did was build bridges between us. From my research among people who knew him, I found that he made the rounds among Kalispell institutions, taking on special projects, keeping tabs and keeping in touch.
When he discovered a favorite musician, he sent a letter and offered his time and friendship. Chuck Suchy, North Dakota's official state troubadour, remembers Skibsrud attending his Kalispell concert some 15 years ago. Suchy says that Skibsrud then wrote to say he would help on Suchy's return trips: "put up posters, take tickets, sell CDs for me — in true Pete fashion."
As Suchy prepares to drive 750 miles from his farm in Mandan, North Dakota, to give a concert in Skibsrud's honor Nov. 5 at the Northwest Montana History Museum, I think about the loss to this community when Skibsrud died less than a year ago, and also the inspiration of his good deeds.
After Sept. 11, 2001, we all heard the renewed mantra of "Look for the helpers," which, as far as I can tell, derives from Mr. Rogers. I always thought the phrase could go one better: "Be the helpers."
Jim Watson, another local friend of Skibsrud’s, recalls that when the athletic fields of Kidsports came on line next to Highway 93, Skibsrud said to him, "You know that whole intersection called for a tunnel?" Buried somewhere in planning documents, the tunnel idea had never made it off the page; but Skibsrud remembered. Skibsrud reminded the director of the Montana Department of Transportation, whom he knew. Then permissions were sought from the city and the adjoining Flathead Valley Community College.
"It was six months coming up on the idea to the tunnel just being there," Watson says. "On Friday there was no tunnel, on Monday there was one. It was magical." We can thank Skibsrud for that safe link.
Skibsrud's life wasn't perfect. He lost his wife and a son — "any one of which could have broken a normal person," Watson says. Skibsrud just kept making friends.
Whether it was tunnels or bridges, he saw the need for connections, then made them. "He was a real giving person," Watson says. "He really loved this community."
I wish I'd met Pete Skibsrud. We need more Petes.
Margaret E. Davis, executive director of the Northwest Montana History Museum, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org