Prairie Lights: Our schools deserve to have noble names


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

School District 2 is headquartered in the Lincoln Center, formerly Lincoln High School. Some readers may recall that Abraham Lincoln was a U.S. president, and a fairly “controversial” one at that.

Maybe Billings School District 2 should adopt the naming system used in some cities and simply assign numbers to new schools. The soon-to-be-named building on the West End would thus be known as Public Middle School No. 6.

God forbid it should be named after anyone whose life might serve as a shining example to generations of young students.

Ole Ed

Ed Kemmick

Early this year, there was a big dustup over the naming of the new middle school in the Heights. Most students and Heights residents who took part in a selection process favored the name Mountain View Middle School, but a school board committee, and then the whole board, voted to name it Medicine Crow Middle School.

The name honors Joseph Medicine Crow, a Crow tribal historian, a World War II veteran with a distinguished record and a recipient of a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Heights residents who opposed the school board choice took pains to say they had no objection to naming the school after Medicine Crow, that their complaint was with the admittedly flawed process used by the district.

And now the district, trying to come up with a name for the new middle school on the West End, finds itself in a similarly sticky situation. In this case, a naming committee appointed by the school board blanched at the name that was most popular among community members who responded to a district survey.

That name was Jeannette Rankin, who was born near Missoula and who was the first woman elected to Congress. As the Gazette reported, the volunteer committee rejected Rankin’s name because it might “foment more controversy.”

Why? Because Rankin was a lifelong pacifist, and by coincidence she was elected to the U.S. House in 1916 and again in 1940, both times on the eve of world wars. She was one of 56 members of Congress to vote against U.S. entry into World War I. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, she was the only member of Congress to vote against a declaration of war against Japan.

Some years ago, I wrote a column for the Gazette about Bob Gannon, the piratical and much-detested former CEO of the Montana Power Co. I asked a number of Montana historians where Gannon might rank in a state Hall of Shame, and who else in our history would have been so widely despised.

Several of them named Rankin. Keith Edgerton, a history professor at Montana State University Billings, said that Rankin, after her World War II vote, went from being fairly popular to being scorned by 99.9 percent of the population.

And though her reputation later regained some luster—there are statues of her in the capitols in Helena and Washington, D.C.—Edgerton said he always told his Montana history students: “There are two people you don’t bring up if you’re having dinner with veterans. One is Jeannette Rankin and the other is Jane Fonda.”

That is an especially interesting observation, given that Ben Steele won 128 write-in votes on the survey regarding a name for the West End school. Steele, who grew up in the Bull Mountains and still lives in Billings, was a survivor of the Bataan Death March and for three harrowing years a prisoner of war in the Philippines and Japan.

What a learning opportunity for young students. You could build a whole course of study around the lives of Medicine Crow, Rankin and Steele. Despite belonging to a tribe neglected and treated so badly for so long, Medicine Crow fought gallantly in World War II, and went on to be one of the most inspiring role models in Montana.

Steele, for his part, survived brutalities that most of us could not even imagine, and then returned home to become a living symbol of peace and reconciliation. And then there is Rankin, whose pacifism was so pure and principled that it is no exaggeration to say she displayed soldierly courage in casting the only vote against U.S. involvement in World War II.

We Montanans should be proud to have produced such people, and in the case of Steele and Medicine Crow, to still have them in our midst. These are precisely the sort of people schools should be named after, precisely the sort of people whose lives should be studied by schoolchildren.

I personally would like to see Rankin’s name on the West End school and Steele’s on the next District 2 school to be built.

Or we could stick with the bland names that were considered by the naming committees—Mountain View in the case of the Heights middle school and Rimview, Westwood and Trailhead, the three names that will go to the school board in the case of the West End middle school.

All those names are of a type cherished by dullard developers when it comes time to name their cookie-cutter subdivisions. They are safe, uncontroversial and absolutely forgettable.

If we need one more good reason to name schools after exemplary citizens, it would be the consideration that nowadays buildings, ballparks, arenas, law schools and such are only named for those rich enough to buy the honor.

Medicine Crow Middle School broke the mold. Let’s keep it going.

Leave a Reply