The race for Havres next mayor
By Tim Eberly
Driving his truck to Chinook for a work-related job, Bob Rice executed a quick U-turn and drove back home to get his checkbook.
It was 1997, and Rice had just heard over the radio that Mayor Phyllis Leonard was running uncontested in the mayoral election. So on the last day of candidate registration, Rice opted to give the people of Havre a choice.
"I figured that we needed to do something for the youth of Havre and nobody was coming up to the plate," said Rice, 55. "So I figured I'd take the bull by the horns. The people of Havre deserve a choice, and when somebody runs uncontested, it's basically not a choice."
Grabbing his checkbook from his home, Rice drove over to the Hill County Courthouse, where he officially registered for his first-ever attempt at mayor. Ultimately, Rice lost that election by only 36 votes. But Rice believes Bob Wells lost that election, not Bob Rice.
When Rice was 2 years old, his mother changed his name from Bob Rice to Bob Wells, so he could carry on her family name after his father's death. But when Rice enlisted for the Navy in 1964, he was forced to use his legal name Bob Wells Rice. Upon his return to Havre in 1995, Bob Rice was the very same man who had left the town in the beginning of his junior year at Havre Central. But some Havre residents were confused.
"Everybody knew me as Bob Wells, so when I ran for mayor, some people had no idea who the heck I was," Rice said.
Regardless, it was not an easy election for Rice. One resident poured a mixture of mud and cement into one of his vehicles, and smeared it onto his garage door, he said. His house was broken into five times. In addition, he received harrassing phone calls.
"It wasn't anything fun," Rice said. Upon informing his wife, Dottie, and his mother of his intent to run again, "They both told me, What the hell are you doing?' "
But after friends stopped by his house to convince him to run, Dottie told her husband, If you want to try it, I can deal with it.'"
At the start of his junior year, struggling academically, the 17-year-old Rice intended to enter the seminary. He routinely woke at 5 a.m. to serve Mass, and only needed to pass a physical to be admitted to study for the priesthood. Unfortunately, doctors discovered a heart murmur during a mandatory physical, prompting an automatic failure of the test.
Dismayed, Rice dropped out of school, deciding instead to take a shot at joining the Navy, knowing full well it required a physical test before entry. It coincided with the outbreak of a war, and remarkably, Rice passed his physical. "It was during Vietnam," he said. "It was hard to flunk in those days."
He served in the Navy for 30 years, and lived in locales like San Francisco, Minneapolis, Indiana, Hawaii and New Jersey. As a young seaman, Rice fantasized about earning the rank of CW-O4, the highest-ranking warrant officer in the Navy, a distinction he received in April 1979.
"I always had dreams of being a CW-04," Rice said. "Anybody who ever asked me who I was, I said CW-O4 Rice, there ain't no five.'"
A passion for helping others has followed Rice throughout his career. In the wake of the Los Angeles earthquake in the late '80s, Rice was stationed in San Diego. He organized 125 naval officers to drive up to assist in the cleanup of the natural disaster. Rice convinced the local transit authority to donate the use of five buses to transport his troop to Los Angeles, and they drove north wielding shovels and wheelbarrows. They distributed water to citizens, and helped clear debris from structurally damaged buildings.
"He's a very good organizer of people from different walks of life," said Greg Bailey, one of Rice's co-workers at Syn-Tech. "He just seems too good to be true. He's the one that guides everybody and gets them excited. If you don't know him, it's easy to think that he's doing it for political means but I would never think that anymore."
In 1993, Rice and a friend used 850 gallons of baby blue paint, which was going to be discarded by the Navy, to paint a school on the Mexican border. It took them almost four months, but the school administrators were grateful. "I asked the principal, Do you like baby blue?' She said, I love baby blue!' I'll never forget that."
The list of Rice's contributions to Havre since he moved back six years ago is lengthy. He has constructed and painted signs for Havre High and the VFW club, and erected the flagpole at the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce. Rice also painted the outside of his old high school.
"He doesn't just say he's going to do something; he goes out and does it," said Christy Keto, Rice's neighbor. "He's very hard-working."
One year while Rice and his family were stationed in Hawaii, Rice's eldest son, Rob, became disheartened and considered dropping out in his senior year at Pearl City High School. Rice admonished his son to stay in school but Rob responded, "You don't have your high school diploma." Though Rice had earned his general equivalency diploma after dropping out of high school, he had never completed high school.
To keep his son in school, Rice attended night school for a year at St. Louis High in Hawaii. And when Rice finally earned his diploma, "I handed my son the diploma and said, Here's my diploma. Now you go get yours.'" His son stayed in school and graduated.
Rice has a theory about two kinds of people who will bring new money into Havre: farmers and retired government employees. Though Havre already has a good portion of farmers, Rice thinks the city needs to find a way to bring retired government workers along with their pensions and consumer families to town. He cited a magazine called the Navy Times, which other towns advertise in to draw retirees.
"You're going to have to take baby steps," said Rice, whose top priority is expanding local businesses. "My goal is to keep Havre above 10,000 (population)."
A city Web site would be one of the first things on Rice's agenda, if he wins the election. "We don't do a good job of selling this town," he said.
He also thinks Havre spends too much money on nonessentials, such as a cell phone and driving allowance given to department heads each year.
"I don't think we have that luxury," Rice said.
Also an avid supporter of building a skateboard park, Rice wants to develop mentoring programs for Havre's youth. Of course, he still has found time to help the adult and elderly population of Havre.
"He's always there to help people," said Dorothy Paronto, an elderly Havre resident. "I can't tell you all the things he's done for me. The list goes on and on. I know if he won, he'd be riding his bicycle around town just checking the alleys and streets."