Friends, colleagues recall a one-of-a-kind public servant


Photo courtesy of Dennis Taylor

Kurt and Jacque Corey, on a visit to Dennis Taylor’s home in Helena, March 2010.

Early in 2001, shortly after Kurt Corey, then director of Public Works for the city of Billings, had accepted a similar job in Eugene, Ore., I wrote a story about his imminent departure.

He had been officiating high school football and basketball games for 20 years, and he told me he wasn’t sure he’d have the time to continue refereeing once he got to Oregon.

Those who knew Corey were not surprised to learn that he found the time, and that he was soon officiating college games as well. Nor were they surprised when, earlier this year, he was named Football Official of the Year by the Oregon Athletic Officials Association.

He earned just as much respect and admiration in his professional life. In 2007 he served as president of the Oregon chapter of the American Public Works Association, and in 2010 he received the chapter’s highest honor, the Bowes Award.

There was one thing, though, that he was not able to do. He used to speak often and with great affection about Choteau, where he grew up on a ranch, and where he hoped to return someday. He invariably referred to the Rocky Mountain Front around Choteau as “God’s country.”

He didn’t make it back to Choteau, and that, in the words of his friend and former co-worker Bill Morgan, “is what’s a crying, damn shame.”

Corey died Friday in Eugene, having decided that enough was enough in his aggressive fight against brain cancer. He died surrounded by those closest to him, including his wife, Jacque, his two daughters, their husbands and his grandchildren.

In the days following Corey’s death, Dennis Taylor spoke with many of Corey’s friends, in Oregon and Montana. Taylor was the city administrator in Billings when Corey decided to make the move to Eugene, and two years later the city manager in Eugene quit and Corey urged Taylor to apply for the job.

Taylor didn’t figure he had a chance, but he told himself, “Well, at least I’ll get a road trip to see Kurt and Jacque in Eugene.” Taylor was offered the job, as it turned out, and stayed there until his retirement in 2007, deepening his friendship and his professional relationship with Corey.

In speaking with so many people about Corey over the past few days, Taylor said, “everybody talked about his dry wit, his great presence and his kind manner.”

Morgan, who was hired by Corey in 1993, when Corey was still the city engineer in Billings, also followed Corey to Oregon, landing a job, with Corey’s encouragement and backing, with the Public Works Department in Lane County, of which Eugene is the county seat.

Morgan stayed there until last year, when he returned to Billings to work in the private sector as an engineer. After Morgan himself was diagnosed with cancer a year ago, Corey, who had had two earlier run-ins with the disease, kept in close contact, calling at least once a week, visiting Morgan when he was in Montana and always offering his hard-won advice.

“One of his sayings was, ‘This will be in the rearview mirror soon,’” Morgan said.

On Tuesday, a group of people Corey used to work with in Billings got together for coffee and to talk about their departed friend. He’d been away from Billings for 16 years, but people still felt close to him.

“We kind of sat around and talked about Kurt,” Morgan said, “what a great leader and mentor he was, and how much he was going to be missed.”

In Eugene, Morgan often saw Corey on the job, and what struck him was that even though the Public Works Department there was so big, with 400-some employees, Corey seemed to know everyone by name, and when they talked it wasn’t about work, but about their lives and their families.

Rick Leuthold, chairman and business development director for Sanderson Stewart, an engineering and development company headquartered in Billings, worked closely with Corey when he headed Public Works, and he remembered him as “an energetic, fun-loving, charismatic guy” who was “fair and even-handed … and that was such a blessing.”

Leuthold said it was “unusual to find people in the public sector who possessed those traits. They are few and far between. He was loved and respected by everybody in both his public and private life.”

Taylor said Corey always bore the influence of his upbringing on the family ranch. I would have to agree with that. I wasn’t born in Montana, and I remember thinking, years ago, that Corey exemplified what I had come to consider the best kind of Montanan.

He was humble and soft-spoken, utterly honest and friendly with everybody. I do recall seeing him turn red in the face during City Council meetings, when someone in the audience or a member of the council questioned his judgment, or challenged his facts.

It wasn’t that he was angry, as such. He was red in the face from the effort it took to remain friendly and civil under difficult circumstances. As Taylor said, referring to Corey as a public official and a referee, “Kurt was so cool when everybody was being jerks.”

I never met Corey’s wife, but Morgan and Taylor were as complimentary about her as they were of her husband. Taylor said he actually knew Jacque first, when he was chairman of the Lewis and Clark County Health Board and Jacque was the nurse at the county jail. Her competence matched her compassion, Taylor said: “She was the best.”

Corey, who died at 61, had been married to Jacque for 41 years. Taylor said they were both raised Catholic and retained “a deep and personal faith.”

Corey was too young to die, with too many well-earned years of retirement ahead of him, but he was said to have died at peace. I can’t help but believe it, considering all he managed to accomplish, and all the friends he leaves behind.

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