Prairie Lights: In the words of Mr. M., arrivederci, 2015!


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Kristeen Keup stands near one of the Michelangelo murals discovered at Senior High School. Like so many Italians, Mr. M. was obsessed with fast cars.

It was a big year for news, all around the world and right here in Montana, where we did our best to remain in the very top ranks of Very Weird States. Let’s look back at the year that was:

It began with an occurrence that no one would have thought possible: a pipeline broke, spilling oil into the Yellowstone River.


Ed Kemmick

Extensive research showed that such a thing—polluting the longest undammed river in the Lower 48 states—had not happened since way, way back in 2011. Experts assured nervous Montanans that it would never happen again.

Also early in the new year, a GOP lawmaker from Missoula, apparently attempting to head off rumors that the Montana Republican Party had regained some of its sanity, introduced a bill that would have criminalized the wearing of pants with a picture of Donald Trump on the seat. “That’s just disrespectful,” he said.

School District 2 finally did something absolutely right when it decided to name a new Heights middle school after Joseph Medicine Crow, and then later in the year named a new West End middle school after Ben Steele. The reasoning was that Medicine Crow and Steele might be the only two authentic heroes left in this sorry world.

Speaking of Missoula, that mountain burg was on pins and needles for the entire first quarter of 2015 as it awaited the release of “Missoula: Into Thick Air,” Jon Krakauer’s explosive book about a deadly avalanche on Mount Sentinel that killed one hang glider and two marmots.

In March, after many years of patient research and restoration work, Billings Senior High School had an open house celebrating the discovery of a series of murals reportedly painted on school walls by Michelangelo, who was an exchange student there many years ago. His high school nickname was Mr. M.

Later that spring, during an unusually heavy onslaught of cottonwood seeds, borne by the trees’ distinctive cotton-like fluff, School District 2 declared the first snow day since the late 1940s (when, coincidentally, Michelangelo was a middle-schooler).

In the third week of May, Lee Enterprises announced that its two experienced Helena Bureau reporters, for reasons unknown and completely unexpectedly, had decided to resign at the same time.

The plucky, innovative newspaper chain subsequently announced that, to fill the void left by the reporters’ departure, readers would be asked to submit their own news stories, which would be assembled into a book that would be sold at Christmas.

In the wake of a Supreme Court ruling in June that effectively legalized gay marriage, a Billings man with one wife sought to obtain a license for another woman who also wanted to be his wife. This did not sit well with wife No. 1, who staged a hunger strike on the lawn of the Yellowstone County Courthouse, attired in nothing but yoga pants.

In mid-summer, high-tech magnate Greg Gianforte of Bozeman embarked on a tour of Montana, with plans to visit every chamber of commerce and creation dinosaur museum in the state, shake hands with every single registered voter and kiss, at a minimum, 8,000 babies. Why? He wouldn’t say.

Late in the summer, it began to dawn on people that the unthinkable had happened. Despite assurances from countless experts that the Bakken oil boom was unlike any oil boom in the history of the world and would continue to produce unlimited wealth for all time and eternity, the boom began to bust.

By the end of the year, oil prices had dropped so steeply that the Holiday stations started giving a 200-pound bag of fracking sand to anyone who bought a tank of gas.

In November, Gov. Steve Bullock, using powers newly conferred upon him by the 2015 Legislature, granted clemency to Barry Beach, who had spent nearly 30 years in prison for a murder he said he did not commit. Bullock, however, commuted the sentence on the condition that Beach agree to serve as his lieutenant governor, whereupon Beach promptly asked to be sent back to Deer Lodge.

Early in the last month of the year, anti-coal protesters sneaked onto the grounds of the Corette power plant in Billings, planted dynamite charges at the base of the plant’s iconic smokestack and blew it up. The explosion sent a cloud of white ash across the city, prompting School District 2 to declare another snow day.

At the cusp of the new year, Gov. Bullock issued an executive order barring people holding dangerous, outlandish ideas from entering the state. Republican presidential candidates promised to sue.

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