When English professor Sue Hart arrived on the Eastern Montana College of Education campus back in 1961, the English Department was housed in a World War II barracks north of McMullen Hall and she taught classes that fall in the basement.
One of her first social gatherings that year was a party hosted by Billings civic leaders and campus colleagues celebrating President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. That may have planted the seed for Hart’s crowded house parties where colleagues discovered mates and members of Montana’s arts community connected.
Hart, 77, retired in April from what is now known as Montana State University Billings. She is being honored at what may be her biggest party yet on Saturday in the MSUB Student Union Building. It is open to all and runs from 3 to 6 p.m.
As testament to Hart’s wide circle of influence throughout the region, organizers fear that the remodeled SUB won't be large enough to hold all the writers, students and friends she has influenced over the years.
Showered with plants
When her health prevented her from completing her spring semester classes, students came to her home, bringing so many flowers and plants that Hart ran out of room inside and started planting them in the yard. The parents of her Saudi Arabian students sent her dates and an incense burner.
Looking back on her lengthy career that included a Governor’s Award, work on PBS documentaries on Dorothy Johnson and Ernest Hemingway, and her 25-year stint heading the Women’s Studies and Service Center at MSU Billings, Hart said her legacy is her students.
“I am proud of the students who have gone on and used what they learned on campus to make successes of their lives,” Hart said.
Hart is well-known for her magazine writing class and for developing courses that reflected her interest in the growth and well-being of her female students. Because she is such a people person, Hart always draws a wide spectrum of folks, colleagues said.
“My fondest memories are of social gatherings at her house,” said English professor Rachel Schaffer, who has worked with Hart for 30 years. “You would get the intellectual community there, present and past mayors, writers and colleagues. It was the most interesting mix of people.”
English Professor Gary Acton, who has served as Hart’s boss as head of the English Department since the mid-1960s, met his wife, Jo, at one of Hart’s parties. Acton described Hart as the heart of the English Department.
“I’ve said we should erect a larger-than-life statue of her on this campus,” Acton said. “She has devoted a lot of herself to this institution. We already have the Sue wall of honor in the English Department with all of her awards.”
Hart’s daughter, Kathleen, said you never knew who all would show up at their door.
“I got to meet Christine Jorgensen, one of the first open transsexuals, and writers James Welch, Harlan Ellison, Earl Murray, Ivan Doig, Bud Guthrie, James Grady and many, many more,” Kathleen said.
Another daughter, Margaret, said many people saw the studious side of her mother because she was always completing writing projects, grading papers or interviewing authors.
Hart’s nonfiction works include the histories of what Hart said are her two favorite entities — MSU Billings and St. Vincent Healthcare. But Margaret also remembers her mom romping around in the yard with the family. And once Hart, a big hockey fan, sprinted across a room at Big Sky to meet a retired hockey player.
“My mom broke her thumb once playing football with my brother,” Margaret said.
Beyond the campus, Hart is admired throughout the state for her knowledge of Montana writers and her appreciation of people in general.
“There are so many people in this state who would say that Sue is a best friend,” Acton said.
Hart helped promote Montana writers through “Montana Books and Authors,” a televised program that ran for years on Community 7. She nurtured writers by introducing them to community members and reviewing their books. Hart also did a stint at The Billings Gazette as a weekend copy editor when her four children were young.
Yet, somehow Hart always found time to read new books and search out new writers, like Ivan Doig, a Montana native who now lives in Seattle. Doig praised Hart’s keen eye for Montana writing and writers.
“She’s been a great pal, a good friend to me and my books,” Doig said. “We must have met a long time ago at a Montana history conference in Billings. That friendship and mutual interest in telling Montana’s stories has stayed green ever since.”
Hart credits the late Sam Gilluly, a Montana newspaper icon, for introducing her to many Montana writers, including Dorothy Johnson and A.B. Guthrie. Hart was married to Sam’s son, Richard, who is the father of her four children. Hart’s son Michael is a Billings police officer, Mary is a tutor, and Margaret is a teacher living in Texas. Kathleen is the lone newswoman in the family, working at the Laurel Outlook. Hart is now married to writer Dick Wheeler.
Bill Cochran, director of the Billings Parmly Library, said he relied on Hart for many years to help select the High Plains Book Awards or to get information about area authors.
“Sue was certainly the most knowledgeable about the literature in the state and probably the most knowledgeable about literature of the region,” Cochran said.
Home for lost pets
When you visit Hart’s home, which she is now sharing with Kathleen, the first two at the door are rescue dogs, one of which has only three legs. Hart was known for letting her kids bring home sick or injured animals, said Kevin Kooistra, community historian at the Western Heritage Center.
“Haven’t you heard the alligator story? Sue would always tell it after her party guests had left. I guess they once had an alligator in the basement,” Kooistra said.
Deb Schaffer, an English professor at MSU Billings, called Hart an impressive role model not just for students but also for colleagues.
“She became such a powerhouse writer and had so many meaningful impacts on other people, including students and colleagues,” Deb Schaffer said.
The Sue Hart Opportunity Scholarship Endowment has been set up through the MSU Billings Foundation.
Donors contributed $8,500 to the scholarship during the Wine and Food Festival in May, and it now is over $10,000, said Marilyn Miller, director of the MSU Billings Foundation.
“It was something we thought we could do to honor a remarkable woman,” Miller said.