Jeanne and Steve Charter of the Bull Mountains

Ideas and Issues

Jeanne CharterDelhi More than 35 years ago I was invited by Drummond Pike, then of the West Coast office of the Youth Project, to do some training with a rag tap bunch of ranchers sons and daughters, activists, environmentalists, and organizers in Billings, Montana with a fledgling Northern Plains Resource Council that became a seminal organization in the Northern Plains. Drummond and I were kids from the west, he from California and me from Wyoming, Colorado, and oil fields in between until ending up in Louisiana, who loved the country and the people and wanted to lend a hand if we could This was a labor of love.

It is funny how there are so many meetings that pass from memory, and then there are others like that endless weekend at the Bozo house that build steel bonds that last a lifetime. It’s not that it was easy or all laughs and cold beer and in fact it was quite the opposite. The organization and its staff were at a crossroads trying to figure out where and what to be in the future along with the how and who could get them there. But in the miracle of these things and the work itself, that first weekend not only led to years of regular pilgrimages for me back to Montana to meet with this crew but also life long friendships with people like Pat Sweeney, who made the organization his life mission and work, and Bill Mitchell, who went on to a career in the allied trades throughout the west. There was Tully, wild off the ranch and looking for a direction forward that winter. There was Kit Mueller, the smart researcher who ended up with the BLM in Washington, who I last ran into maybe 10 years ago in a Starbucks there. He married another woman who worked in the office then. There was Steve Charter, a rail thin, quiet young man sent by his dad to help out that winter. Boyd Charter had helped found the Bull Mountain group of ranchers opposing strip mining and some of the coal leases whose fight led to the creation of NPRC. Jeanne was a young woman from Minnesota with some slight experience as a community organizer who wanted to use those skills there.

Many more would follow them in other states and other campaigns. NPRC would support and help found organizations throughout the region through the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) which Pat has led for decades now. Theresa, his wife and a good friend, too, I first met in Colorado with the Western Colorado Congress, and she has now led NPRC for decades as well.

Jeanne went on to marry Steve and they both ended up buying the ranch in the Bull Mountains hardly 20 miles outside of Billings. They raised two kids and a lot of cattle there, but the values they had when I first met them never changed or wavered. Years later hearing from a friend with the UAW about a ranch family that donated and sent them organic beef during a bad strike, I almost instantly knew it had to be the Charters, and it was. They also led the fight and lawsuit to overturn the mandatory fees assessed on beef producers and used for beef marketing and promotion that they opposed, and took the fight all the way to the Supreme Court before finally losing. They lived their values and their activism in a hundred different ways. These were good people in the best, classic sense of the America many of us still idealize and love.

I am on the e-alert list from WORC. A message towards the end of last week came scrolling across my screen saying “Tragic Loss.” I assumed it was another slap down in DC in the long litany of reversals we are seeing in farm and energy policy too often these days. When I opende Pat’s message a bit later though, I was shocked to see that it linked to a story from Billings about a fatal highway accident. I called Pat on his cell and in a rarity caught him immediately because he was home struggling with a virus. He had been up to the ranch a couple of nights before. Jeanne had been waiting to turn in her pickup and been rear ended by a careless driver into the path of a truck pulling a horse trailer and killed almost instantly. Steve had been trailing only miles behind before coming onto the scene.

The funeral was today at the Elks Club in Billings. I’ll wager there was a huge crowd. Steve and Jeanne Charter are people that have proved with their lives that we can always make a different by integrating our politics and values into any and everything we do no matter how hard the soil and how scare the water. I haven’t seen either of them in decades, but I’m grieving for Jeanne now and her family and all of her friends, many of whom are also mine, not just for a life untimely lost, but also for the heavier weight that we all must now carry without her to make a difference and keep making change in every way we can and every day we have.