BUTTE — Humorous, beloved, a champion for working people, a tough legislator who worked across the aisle.
That’s how former colleagues of William “Red” Menahan on Monday described the 30-year Montana Democratic legislator from Anaconda.
Menahan, 78, died of a brief respiratory illness Saturday in Billings.
Jim Murry, Montana State AFL-CIO executive director 1967-1991, considered Menahan a good friend and expert politician.
“He was a tough partisan, there was no question about that,” Murry said. “He had really strong democratic values as you would expect from Anaconda and Butte. Yet he had the ability to work out agreements so things could be done.
“It wasn’t like today where issues are voted up or down and nothing happens. Red worked in the era when things happened.
He was the kind of guy
who could get things done.”
Menahan served 30 years in the Montana House of Representatives, from 1970 to 2000, before term limits kicked in.
A lifelong educator, he taught for 34 years in the Anaconda School District, from 1966 to 2000.
Jim Davidson, Anaconda Local Development Corp. director, worked with Menahan on several projects over the years.
He said Red worked hard to keep employment numbers up in his district, especially at Montana State Hospital at Warm Springs, the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge and Galen State Hospital.
“He was a legislator for the working man,” said Davidson.” He wanted to make sure that the people who served as employees of the state institution were justly treated. It was tough here with the high unemployment.”
Mike Menahan, Red’s youngest son, recalled his father’s penchant for giving voice to the voiceless, especially the public employees:
“He did a great job representing a district that didn’t have a lot of advocates in the state legislature,” said the younger Menahan. “They couldn’t afford lobbyists to represent them, but they elected Red to do that job.”
Red had a rare gift for finding common ground in funding meetings with his wicked humor.
“He defused the tension, made his point and maybe got a little sympathy from fellow members for funding he was trying to provide,” said Mike Menahan. “He could come up with something like that in any circumstance. We were always amazed at how quick-witted he was. There was no one like him.”
Many remember the wicked sense of humor Red brought to the state Legislature, teaching and to daily life.
“Red was passionate and blustery, but never ever mean-spirited,” said Nancy Keenan, Anaconda native who served two terms in the Montana House and 12 years as Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction.
“He could work across the aisle and yet never give up his progressive values,” added Keenan. “He fought hard, but he would be the first to walk out and have a beer with the guy across the aisle. It was the humanity of it: you fight the fight, the job had to be done and he did what was best for the people of Montana and Anaconda.”
Red struck a balance for workers: fair wages and health care coverage while also having access to clean water and public lands for fishing and hunting.
“He didn’t sacrifice jobs at the expense of workers,” Keenan added.
Evan Barrett started as executive director of the Montana Democrats in 1971, the same year Red started his long legislative career. Barrett said Red’s Irish humor served him, his colleagues and his constituents well.
“Nothing was so serious that you couldn’t get a laugh out of it,” said Barrett. “That’s the way he got things done: he was a Happy Warrior. He would work with anybody to get it done, but he was a firm believer in what he wanted done.”