Havre Daily News
After more than 40 years of enlightening students and sharing his academic wealth with the people of Havre, Bill Thackeray has retired from his post at Montana State University-Northern.
Friends and co-workers describe him as a consummate lecturer and storyteller; a kind man with extensive knowledge of literature, history of the American West, and Native American history, literature, law and culture; and an energetic instructor who's helped college students grow and develop.
Thackeray has seen numerous changes at Northern, including budget cuts that have reduced the number of faculty, fewer course offerings, shrinking enrollment, and the college's change from an independent institution to a part of Montana State University.
He's known as a pioneer in the area of Native American studies, a program he began teaching at Northern in the late 1960s. He's been involved in the Montana Committee for the Humanities for years. He's been a fixture at the Havre-Hill County Library, where he's been asked to lead book discussions.
“He represents what's best about this state and this part of the country,” said fellow English professor John Snider. “He is a fixture. I think he is held in high regard by the students, and his classes have been very popular.”
Lynn Hamilton, a member of the Board of Regents who lives in Havre and has known Thackeray for 35 years, said he has earned the respect of students and fellow educators.
“Bill is somebody who's worked with a lot of students and is well-respected, both from the standpoint of his subject-area knowledge and as a teacher and an adviser for students,” she said.
In an interview Wednesday, Thackeray talked about his career as an educator and the changes he's seen at the college.
A published author who draws on his own experience growing up on a ranch west of Havre for his novels, Thackeray has traveled far beyond north-central Montana. Personal travels to South Korea, England and the Philippines, along with a fellowship in India, are additions to his experience gained across the West, at universities as far away as Chicago and Philadelphia and in a 10-year stint with the Army National Guard.
Thackeray pointed to his extensive reading as a child and his parents' support as reasons for his academic career.
He began his student life at the University of Montana in Missoula before transferring to Northern Montana College to complete his bachelor's degree in English and history. He studied English and philosophy at the University of Utah before earning an interdisciplinary doctorate in anthropology, English and philosophy from Idaho State University.
The practice of education is what has kept him coming back for more, decade after decade.
“It's a very creative process if you do it well,” Thackeray said. “You have to change your courses. Even though I teach the same courses, they're not taught in the same way. It's a learning process as well. I certainly enjoyed my experience as a teacher. I consider myself fortunate.”
Over the years, he's taught history, literature, writing, philosophy, anthropology and Native American studies.
A lifetime living near reservations and long friendships with American Indians in the area played a part in sparking his interest in the subject. Thackeray also has relatives in the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians in North Dakota.
“Plus, it's very interesting as an academic field,” Thackeray said. “It's a new specialty area of study. It's really only about 25 years old. We were pioneers here.”
When he started teaching Native American literature courses at Northern, he could find only four similar programs at universities across the country. At one point, the college offered a bachelor's degree in the subject. Budget cuts have now reduced that to a minor at the college.
Hamilton said Thackeray has worked to improve the teaching of American Indian heritage, history and culture and has built relationships with Indian communities.
“The kind of work that Bill has done in the classroom and in building relationships with people in the Native American community will benefit the whole state of Montana,” she said.
Snider, who teaches Native American history and literature courses, said Thackeray was a big help for him when Snider joined the college in 1989. He said Thackeray's scholarly writings and discussions on the subject have earned him respect throughout the Montana university system.
Thackeray also started the philosophy program at Northern, another that has been “chipped away,” he said, with budget cuts over the years.
Thackeray said Northern's consolidation with MSU-Bozeman in 1994 has had a detrimental effect on the college. Liberal arts programs have been cut year after year as the budget has shrunk, he said.
In past years, the college wielded a lot of influence in the state Legislature because Northern was the primary institution for so many of the surrounding representatives and senators.
The college's technical programs have been “a real strength,” he said.
“It's not a strength for the campus to lose all of that coursework in history, philosophy and Native American studies,” he added. “We aren't getting the budget or the students in our liberal arts program. I think we were better off here at Northern before they decided to consolidate.”
Thackeray said he pushed for Northern to reorganize as part of the University of Montana. Policies at UM, such as sharing faculty and courses, have helped its satellite schools, while MSU-Bozeman has policies in place that encourage students to attend there instead of here, he said.
Hamilton said she shared some of Thackeray's concerns when she resigned as the MSU-N director of university relations and was appointed to the state Board of Regents in 1997.
“Restructuring was very difficult for this whole community to deal with,” she said.
She agreed that the differences in management styles between UM and MSU have been “a matter of concern” for the regents, who hope to bring the two schools' philosophies closer together.
Hamilton said she knows of at least two instances, however, in which MSU-Bozeman was able to help its satellite schools survive by distributing funds from out-of-state enrollment.
“Those funds helped those campuses become more sustainable,” she said.
The larger issues behind the budget at Northern are shrinking enrollment and the availability of funds statewide for higher education, she said. Funding has been static since 1992 due to other pressures - such as K-12 education, corrections and health and human services - at the legislative level, she said. Tax resources have been growing, but at a “relatively modest rate,” she added.
Thackeray said he will spend his retirement writing and traveling. A third novel, based on his experiences attending school in Havre - “Bound for Bullhook Bottoms” - is due out this spring. He recently completed a fourth manuscript, which describes his experiences following his military service.
Havre-Hill County Library director Bonnie Williamson said Thackeray knows how to tell a good story.
“I enjoy his writings,” said Williamson, adding that she has some of Thackeray's poetry from the 1970s and '80s on file. “He can pique your interest at the beginning.”
Williamson said Thackeray has always been willing to share his knowledge of history, children's literature and classic novels in discussions at the library.
“Even though he's very intelligent, he's a very common man and very approachable for the community members,” she said.
Mark Sherouse, executive director of the Montana Committee for the Humanities, said Thackeray has been a “fine educator and representative of MSU-Northern.”
Thackeray has served as a member of the statewide board, a speakers bureau member and has participated in reading and discussion programs and grant projects, Sherouse said.
“He is an eloquent spokesperson for the Hi-Line and its people,” he said.