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Missoula community pays tribute to Mayor Engen during memorial service

Posted at 12:32 AM, Aug 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-21 02:39:14-04

MISSOULA — Missoula Mayor John Engen is being remembered for being "fearless" and able to "take on any task" if it would make the city a better place to live.

Yet friends and colleagues say it was the late mayor's humanity and humor that they'll remember most, sharing their deepest feeling less than a week after he lost hisbattle against cancer.

Saturday's "Celebration of Life" took place at Ogren Park Allegiance Field, the facility Engen was a strong advocate for, and just blocks away from his boyhood home.

The size of the path left by John Engen over 16 years in office, and even before public service, was apparent from the list of speakers. Former Governor Steve Bullock said he wouldn't have a chance to serve, if it hadn't been for John's early support when he was a distant third in a primary campaign for Attorney General.

"He made everyone, no matter their station, feel important, respected, and loved. Being mayor wasn't his job, it was his life. Other elected and appointed offices didn't appeal to him. Trust me, I tried. He was uninterested because it would take him away from his hometown."

Former Missoula Mayor Mike Kadas, who served before Engen's election in 2005, recalled his many accomplishments.

"Let's remember him when we see 100 year old water mains finally getting replaced. When we have lots of good clean water to drink," Kadas told the crowd. "When, on a summer evening, we linger with the sunset over the Clark Fork on the wide sidewalk of the Bear Tracks Bridge. John had his hand in all of these and many other things that make Missoula better place."

"Humor and humility are invaluable leadership traits, and John exemplified them," United Way of Missoula County CEO Susan Hay Patrick observed after reflecting on Engen's famous jokes. "He would tease me about being an optimist, he said. He couldn't be one because he was Norwegian."

"But he was the biggest optimist of us all."

FULL VIDEO: Memorial Service for Missoula Mayor John Engen

Former Montana State Majority Leader Carol Williams, and her husband, former U.S. Congressman Pat Williams, praised Engen for his forward thinking, such as Missoula's landmark anti-discrimination ordinance, with Pat saying he had that "secret sauce" all "politicians crave". Qualities critical to governing today.

"In these harsh, too often angry political times, all levels of government, everywhere, desperately needs some John Engens," Williams said.

U.S. Senator Jon Tester recalled meeting Engen for the first time when they were both running for office in 2005, marveling that he was driving a Mini Cooper - "with a tachometer!" - and how he thought that was "pretty cool." He also joked about Engen playing guitar in front of members of Pearl Jam backstage at a fundraiser for the Senator in 2018.

But he turned serious when he reflected on Engen's approach to service and the community, and how he would regularly volunteer to serve meals at the Poverello Center. "But maybe the most impressive quality he had, as far as I'm concerned, is he showed the same respect to a homeless person, as he did to a U.S. Senator."

People sign a book with comments during Saturday's celebration of life for Mayor Engen

"I've always said that anybody can be replaced and anybody can be replaced. It's going to take about half-a-dozen people to replace John Engen."

The common theme? That John Engen was determined to better Missoula, but with compassion for everyone.

Parks & Recreation Director Donna Gaulker spoke on behalf of the city's 800-plus employees, saying it was a "challenge" to keep up with the Mayor's energy but "rewarding." She said, "He knew what you did. He probably knew where you lived. And he knew enough about you that you knew you were special."

Long-time friend Mike Bellusci, who had known Engen since they went to Hellgate High School together, capped the celebration by reflecting on everyone's loss: "His wit, his generosity and his compassion made people just want to be around him.And the absence of that we find very hard to imagine."