Whether it was a state political race or a hot-button issue in Montana, Billings political scientist Craig Wilson was always willing to offer his keen insights.
As recently as mid-October, Wilson, an emeritus professor of political science at Montana State University Billings, was sharing his thoughts on the 2018 U.S. Senate campaign. But during his long tenure as a professor, he and his undergraduate students also conducted political polls to take the pulse of Montana voters.
“I had great admiration for him,” Chuck Johnson, retired longtime state bureau reporter for Lee Enterprises in Helena, said Saturday. “He had a good interpretation of Montana politics.”
Wilson, 69, a native of Montana, died unexpectedly on Wednesday. A funeral will take place Wednesday at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Shepherd.
Wilson, who joined the faculty at MSUB in 1980, taught political science until he retired in 2014. Johnson first met him when the two were undergraduate students at the University of Montana.
After Wilson began teaching at MSUB and Johnson worked as a state bureau reporter, Johnson kept in touch.
“I was always looking for professors in the political science field to get their take on political developments,” Johnson said. “He was one of the key ones.”
Wilson followed politics closely, he followed the Montana Legislature closely and he taught his students much of what he knew, Johnson said.
“I just thought he was a straight shooter and told you what he thought, and I respected his views,” Johnson said.
Cathy Grott, of Billings, who also previously taught political science at MSUB, called Wilson “probably the foremost expert in the state of Montana on elections.”
One time she joined him on a local TV station to do election analysis. Grott was nervous about going live on air, telling him she’d have to get together some kind of playbook.
“But he could pull things right off the top of his head, and he knew what was going on across the state,” said Grott, now interim program director for Health Care Services at MSUB.
Jessie Bennion, who lives in Helena, had just graduated from the University of Montana in 2005 when a position opened up at MSUB for an adjunct professor in the Political Science Department. She was hired, and Wilson became her mentor.
“He was really a kind and generous guy to a newbie in the department,” Bennion said. “He was really passionate about teaching.”
She liked how Wilson interacted with the students. And she was impressed that he would involve his students in political polling.
“That was pretty unique to have undergraduate students doing polling,” Bennion said. “I think that really impacted the students in that department.”
Her work at MSUB, and her time under Wilson’s tutelage, inspired her to pursue a doctorate in political science.
“To have a mentor that leads you along in your first year of teaching, it was really great,” Bennion said. “I’ll always be grateful for that.”