For more than half of the university’s history, Bill Danley has been a fixture in the Agriculture Department’s faculty. Not bad for a guy who came to Montana State University-Northern 45 years ago for a “two- or three-year” stint.
But he has now officially stepped down. At least from that role. And for the time being.
As he was cleaning out his desk May 8 in the Brockman Center, Bill was flooded with best wishes from fellow faculty, students, alumni and farmers from up and down the Hi-Line.
At graduation, students celebrated with Bill at the clock tower after the ceremonies. The next day the community honored Bill at Beaver Creek Gold Course, as they feasted on beef barbeque with the guy who had taught students the ins and outs of the cattle business for nearly a half century.
Seated at tables beneath a large tent, friends looked back on Bill’s career.
“His focus was always the kids,” said one friend. “Always.
“They don’t make professors like that any more.”
“His office was always user-friendly,” said Jo Lynn Savage, adding that students would drop in with problems, academic or otherwise, throughout the day.
“And he makes the best beef brisquet anywhere,” added Sandy Curtis. Bill insists his son is the super brisquet chef.
Off campus, he was great to socialize with.
“We would play pinochle and Bill would always cheat by five,” joked Larry Curtis.
Darrin Boss, superintendent of the Northern Ag Research Center, said that about five or six of Bill’s students get jobs at the station yearly. Some have stayed on permanently. If Bill sends students his way, they will be people who know their way around, Boss said.
Bill’s Northern experience was something of a fluke.
When he was growing up on the family farm in New Mexico, he had specific plans for his life. He would go to college, get a degree, and return home to take over the farm from his father. But his grandfather died when he was a high school junior. The family leased out the farm, thinking Bill could still go to college and come home to take over after.
Bill went to New Mexico State in Las Cruces, earned his bachelor’s degree and got a free master’s degree by working in the college’s ag program.
But with that done, there were still a couple of years left on the family farm.
At first, he scoffed at a friend’s suggestion that he look for a job at a community college.
He would have great rapport with students, and he surely knew the subject matter, his friend said.
So he sent $25 to a Chicago firm that matches employees with employers.
Before long, he got a call from Bob Siebrasse, who founded Northern’s agricultural program in 1953. How about moving to Havre, Montana to teach?
It was a college he knew nothing about in a town he’d never heard of in a state he knew precious little about.
Siebrasse said the job would be for one, or two, years, as budget-cutting bureaucrats had been snooping around campus and word was they planned on closing the university anyway. Bill said that’s he needed to hear.
They would be a good team, Siebrasse thought. Bill was the cattle expert and Siebrasse knew farming,
Bill and his wife packed the car and drove to Havre. In October of 1973 he stood in front of a classroom for the first time.
Bill fell in love with Havre, the Hi-Line, Northern and the students. The Hi-Line has similarities to the area he came from — except the winters.
“I just loved Havre and the Hi-Line, and I loved Northern,” he said.
During his early years on the faculty, a thousand people filled the Student Union Building to tell state officials just what they thought of closing Northern. With that kind of support, the state kept Northern open.
That event made Bill realize that Northern loved the Hi-Line and the Hi-Line loved Northern. He never did leave after two, or three, years.
He teamed up with Siebrasse to run the department until 1981 when Siebrasse retired. Then Tom Welch joined the team.
Bill’s dream came true some years later.
While Northern was mostly a four-year school, the ag program was only two years, offering associate degrees exclusively.
But in 1996 the program was expanded to four years, and for the first time people could get a bachelor’s degree in agriculture.
While enrollment at Northern has had its dips over the years, the agriculture program has remained stable.
Throughout the years, Bill has been at his office morning, noon, and into the night, making himself available to students. He’s lost track of how many students have gone through his courses over the years, but he runs into them all the time, he said. They have worked in places like the USDA, Farm Service Agency, the Montana Extension. Others have become crop adjusters, farmers, ranchers. The veteran teacher has taught two generations of many Hi-Line families, fathers as well as sons, fathers and daughters.
Bill said he realized that he was really becoming a veteran when during a college event Chancellor Greg Kegel told him, “You must really have been here too long.” Kegel said he’d just met a man and his granddaughter who were taught by Bill.
It’s not as bad as it sounds, Bill said. The grandfather was not a traditional student, he was 40 when he attended one of his classes.
In recent years, he has used a scooter to get round because of a nerve condition in his legs, but it hasn’t stopped him from getting around.
He’s loved every minute of teaching— “It’s tremendous seeing all of the students at graduation.”
So, why is he quitting?
It took a long time to decide. He and Welch have talked it over for several years. They didn’t want to depart at the same time and leave newcomers running the show,
“I’m turning 70 this year,” Bill said. ”A lot of people I know retired when they turned 70.”
He leaves satisfied, knowing the department is in good hands. He will be replaced by Brianna Bernhardt, the ag teacher at Big Sandy High School.
“She will be great with the students,” he said.
He looks back on his career with pride. “I never viewed it as a job. I had a whole lot of fun.
“I didn’t take this job to get rich,” he said.
So what will the guy who spent 45 years with Northern do now that he’s retired?
Well, he’s going back to Northern.
After fulfilling the required time off for retirees, he plans to work in one of the administrative offices — perhaps the registrar’s office — to help out the overworked staff. That will keep him in the Northern orbit and in touch with his students.
“The students will be sophomores, juniors and seniors, and I want to stay in touch with them,” he said. “I want to be around my students.
“I want to wind things down slowly.
“Students are what we are here for,” he said. “Students.”
Bill said he’s been late for and even missed meetings because he put students first.
“It’s always the students,” he said.
Corrections: In an earlier version of this story, The Herald misreported that Bill’s father died instead of his grandfather, the year the four-year ag program was started, and that it was Siebrasse who said Bill would only be at Northern for one or two years.
John Kelleher is a Herald contributor and lead advisor. Kelleher can be reached at [email protected]