Darby High School students in Steve Gideon’s U.S. History class experienced the passion of Montana Humanities speaker and historian Hal Stearns on Monday.
Gideon said he was Stearns’ freshman student at Sentinel High School in 1977 and credited him for making history exciting and starting him on his career. Gideon invited Stearns as part of a Humanities in Montana-Speakers in the School Series grant.
“It is always good to have guest speakers in class as they provide another viewpoint about something they are passionate and knowledgeable about,” Gideon said. “I have had a large number of speakers in the past, on everything from eastern Montana settlers to people from the Middle East growing up in Montana.”
Stearns spoke on “Small Towns - Then, Now, and Tomorrow” at the Darby Community Public Library a few weeks ago and was to speak with the students the same day, but a conflict caused the need to reschedule.
Stearns taught at Sentinel, University of Montana Western, and Nebraska, then began to freelance during the renewed interest in the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
“I spoke in 43 states, Japan, Korea, Brazil, Argentina, England, and Germany,” he said. “The Lewis and Clark thing just kind of caught people – they ate it up.”
Stearns taught “My Love Affair with Montana” and brought a passion and lively discussion of Montana through time.
“I’m a historian,” he told the Darby students. “A historian takes a look at something back a ways. Darby means a lot to me because one of my key areas of interest – Lewis and Clark – came right through this area. We ask what were they doing, who did they meet, and what evidence did they leave for us?”
Stearns said a great moment in history was when Lewis and Clark met the Flathead Indians in the Big Hole. He showed a photo of the Charlie Russell painting that hangs in the House of Representatives at the Montana Capitol.
“Sometimes historians don’t like what we see,” Stearns said. “When I was in Hiroshima I didn’t want to look the Japanese people in the eye. There are some times when I’d like to have a pencil with an eraser and I’d like to erase the past.”
Stearns taught history with color, frank discussions, and passion.
“My focus is on the American west, and I have a love affair of Montana,” he said.
Stearns showed photos and covered many of Montana’s historical moments bringing excitement to each one: hay-raking beaver slides, the journals of Lewis and Clark, Missoula in 1894, Teddy Roosevelt in Missoula in 1912, Fort Missoula Bicycle Corps, Gary Cooper, Fort Shaw, Shep the dog, smoke stacks and sugar beets, weather cycles, world wars, Fort Peck, and current events.
But what really gets Stearns' enthusiasm is talking about the Lewis and Clark expedition. He noted that they have five of the seven journals from the trip, and they show how dangerous the trip was, including encountering 39 grizzly bears - and how they had to shoot one 15 times to take it down.
Even today, the wilderness of Montana remains intact.
“We have the wild place, the wild game,” he said. “We have the grizzly, prong horn antelope, and wolf. We’ve got the out of doors and a lot of places don’t have that at all.”
Stearns encouraged Darby students to make a bucket list of all the things they want to do in their life and the places they’d like to visit, and place the White Cliffs of the Missouri River on that list.
“Mr. Gideon you make darn sure they do that or I’m going to change your grade and you’ll go back to Sentinel High School as a freshman,” Stearns said. “Also, they need to go for a walk to listen to the silence and they need to visit the Traveler’s Rest near Lolo.”
Stearns ended with the story of the loyal sheep dog Shep in Fort Benton, whose owner’s dead body was shipped to Iowa. Shep met the train every day for five and a half years waiting for his owner to return.
“When Shep died in 1941, over 1,000 people came to that dog’s funeral and next to the river there is a monument showing the dog looking for the train and at the bottom it says ‘Forever Faithful,’” Stearns said.
The students listened intently to Stearns as he brought history to life and a few had tears in their eyes when he told about Shep.
Gideon praised Stearns and his exciting presentation that took his students through time.
“That’s the cool thing about being a history teacher is you slowly connect yourself and your personal history with the state,” Gideon said. “When you transfer that on to your kids, it’s neat.”