Longtime Montana State University Billings English professor Sue Hart, admired for her sharp eye and ability to bring people together, died Monday morning in Livingston. She was 78.
With her four children and her husband, Richard Wheeler, at her bedside, Hart died just after 3 a.m. on Monday. She retired in May 2013 after teaching at MSUB since 1961.
Hart’s family is holding a memorial service and vigil on Thursday at Petro Theatre at MSUB beginning at 3 p.m. and followed by a gathering at the Rimrock Cafe next to Petro.
Friends and colleagues are encouraged to come and share memories of Hart. Billings writer Craig Lancaster will speak at the service and a priest will offer a prayer.
A mass is also planned for noon Friday at St. Patrick’s Co-Cathedral in Billings.
Hart was admired by many for her writing and editing skills, but her real passion was teaching and sharing her knowledge of Montana writers. Seattle author Ivan Doig, who was born in Montana, said Monday that Hart knew much about Montana literature.
“The depth of her knowledge and the way it must have come out in her teaching was unique,” Doig said. “It seemed to me, popping into Montana, that Sue was the linchpin figure that people connected with literature all knew. She was a good and gracious friend.”
Doig said Hart knew all the established writers, but she also kept track of lesser-known writers, including women who homesteaded in Montana and wrote about their experiences.
“She lived a lot of lives in one,” Doig said. “There were just a lot of good memories from being around her.”
Hart’s daughter, Mary Gilluly, said her mother’s love was teaching. Hart’s other children are Michael, Margaret and Kathleen Gilluly.
“She would have taught until the day she died if she could have,” Mary Gilluly said. “She was a wonderful teacher, mentor and writer.”
Hart arrived on the Eastern Montana College of Education campus in 1961 to teach in the English Department, which was housed in the basement of a World War II barracks north of McMullen Hall. 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.
Hart carried on that tradition of hosting parties and getting people together throughout her time at MSU Billings. After retiring in 2013, she moved to Livingston where she lived in an assisted-living facility because of her declining health.
Hart’s career 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 MSUB. But Hart said in 2013 that 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 in a 1993 interview.
Tami Halaand, chair of the MSU Billings English Department, said Monday that Hart motivated her and many others.
“Sue was an inspiration for her work on Montana literature and its authors, her focus on women and women’s issues, her 50-year career at MSUB and her dedication to community, in the broadest sense of the word,” Halaand said.
When her health prevented her from completing her spring semester classes in 2013, Hart’s students came to her Billings home, bringing so many flowers and plants that she ran out of room inside and started planting them in the yard.
Because she was such a people person, Hart always drew a wide spectrum of people to her, colleagues said.
“My fondest memories are of social gatherings at her house,” said Rachel Schaffer, MSU Billings English professor.
Schaffer, who worked with Hart for 30 years, said the mix of people at Hart’s gatherings was always impressive.
“You would get the intellectual community there, present and past mayors, writers and colleagues. It was the most interesting mix of people.”
Former English Department chairman Gary Acton, who served as Hart’s boss from the 1960s through 2013, said he met his wife, Jo, at one of Hart’s parties.
“I’ve said we should erect a larger-than-life statue of her on campus,” Acton said. “She has devoted a lot of herself to this institution.”
Hart wrote the histories of two of her favorite entities — MSUB and St. Vincent Healthcare. Beyond Billings, Acton said Hart is admired throughout Montana for her knowledge of writers and appreciation of people in general.
“There are so many people in this state who would say that Sue is a best friend,” Acton said in 2013.