051317-mis-nws-grad-archambault

Charles Archambault graduates from the University of Montana on Saturday with a master's in business administration, an achievement set in motion more than a decade ago when a car wreck left his legs paralyzed. Archambault plans to move back to Browning with his family with a desire to contribute to the community.

TOM BAUER, Missoulian

Charles Archambault earned a rap sheet and jail time long before he was on the brink of earning a master's in business administration from the University of Montana.

He started drinking at the age of 11, and he was even younger when he started smoking weed.

At 13, he began losing friends and family to drugs, car wrecks, suicides, unsolved murders. He lived a fast life, a life out of control.

"I didn't think I'd live to be 25. I didn't even care," he said.

More than a decade ago, Archambault almost met his own prediction.

In 2006, he got loaded at a Grizzlies football game in Missoula, and he took the wheel of a Buick Regal to drive back to Browning. It was a fast car, too fast for him, a drunk driver who blacked out and went careening down the road without a seat belt.

To try to avoid a couple of deer, Archambault hit the ditch, overcorrected, and flipped the car end over end. The steering wheel crushed his ribs, all of them, he said, and he flopped around in the car with a snapped collarbone and four broken vertebrae.

At Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, he spent a month in intensive care. The doctors didn't think he'd make it.

"I begged for my life. I always thought I was this big tough guy, but when I was on my deathbed, I was begging. I was begging God for my life."

He got his life back, but he wouldn't get use of his legs back.

Nonetheless, Archambault is thankful to be alive and able to make good on a desire he had even as a young hellion to help other youngsters on the Blackfeet Reservation.

This weekend, the self-described "ex-knucklehead" graduates with his MBA, and soon after, he'll head home again, in a wheelchair but sober.

"That's what I've always wanted to do with my education, is go back to Browning and contribute in some way," Archambault said.

Nowhere fast

Archambault got into a life of drugs and petty crimes growing up.

"It's easy to get caught up in it, and it's hard to get out. Most people don't get out of that lifestyle," he said.

He racked up DUIs, possessions, disorderlies. He figures he got tossed in jail 15 times or so.

Archambault had a knack for numbers, though. His grandfather is a civil engineer, and Archambault learned to survey and figured he'd do survey construction the rest of his life. He loved it.

When he bothered going, he did well in school, and he studied surveying in Kalispell for a couple of years, then dropped out in his last semester in 2005.

"I never planned to go back to school," he said.

In a roundabout way, the wreck that paralyzed him in 2006 propelled him to college.

'Born again'

When his father got the call the night of the crash, he was told Archambault was either dead or about to die. He headed to Kalispell.

A jet flew the father and what was left of his son to Seattle as Archambault fought for breath. When he landed, the prognosis was grim.

"They figured my lungs were so damaged, I wouldn't be able to come back," he said.

For a month, they were right.

Then, he woke up and tried to get out of bed. The nurse told him he was paralyzed.

"I probably cried for days. I just cried and cried. 'Cause everything I ever did, I used my legs," he said.

Hunt. Fish. Do construction. Ride horses. Play sports.

He spent two months in rehab just healing, regaining strength, learning how to use a wheelchair, get dressed, use the bathroom.

"The way I look at it, it was like being born again," Archambault said. 

After being discharged, Archambault moved in with his mom, who doesn't appear to suffer fools or foolishness.

When he was feeling down about the crash, she'd try to knock some sense into him.

"'Charles, this is the lifestyle you chose. No one told you to use drugs. Now, you live with it.'

"That was probably the best thing anyone ever told me."

In fact, he said, his mom raised him on her own, and he believes she has a strong suit: "My mom, man, she specializes in tough love."

He needed that tough love, but even so, he couldn't keep living at home as an adult. In 2007, Archambault went back to college, namely to recoup some independence.

Since he'd always been good with numbers, he studied business. Archambault got a degree, but he couldn't get a job right away.

In Missoula, his rap sheet came back to haunt him. His sweetheart was pregnant at the time, and he started to feel desperate before finally landing a job back in Browning at Blackfeet Community College.

"I went into HR (human resources) and it was $10 an hour," he said.

But he got a raise, then another, and within a year, he was earning plenty more than what he'd made when he'd started.

At the college, Archambault's job was giving out scholarships to people who earned lower incomes and wanted to go into health care.

"I enjoyed my job a lot, but I wanted to go further up into the administration," Arcchambault said.

Some position would open up, and he'd apply, but he'd only get the interim post. Soon, the new head honcho would come around, and he'd have to train up the person and relinquish the job.

"It was frustrating to me because I could do the work, but I didn't have the qualifications," he said.

Plus, the pay was higher, even $10,000, $15,000 a year more. Finally, he decided it was time to get the master's degree, and he and his family moved back to Missoula in 2014.

Opportunity to help

Last week, Archambault graduated with his MBA, and he figures he's accomplished more in the last 10 years of his life in a wheelchair than in the previous 20 years. 

"When I got into this MBA program, I put forth my full effort," he said.

Soon, he'll head home to work, share life's lessons, and play. He can't ride horses anymore, but he'd still like to get into the mountains and the Badger Two-Medicine area, and in the future, he might get a special wheelchair for the outdoors, although they're pricey.

"I've seen electric ones where they climb up these big mountains," Archambault said. 

He may open a mental health facility in Browning down the road, and in the meantime, he'll tell his story. Already, he and a cousin, a first cousin he calls his brother who did time in prison, talk with school kids and tell them to stay out of trouble.

"You think you're tough? You think it's cool to drink and beat people up? Keep at it and this is where you'll be," he says to them, pointing to his wheelchair.

That or in prison, maybe dead.

"I've buried so many of my friends and family from alcohol and drugs. It just don't seem to stop," Archambault said.

It's one reason he wants to give back. Unlike the friends he's buried, he has the opportunity to help.

"Every day I wake up, I'm so thankful because life is so precious," he said. "It could be taken from you just like that."

Archambault will hit the road for Browning as soon after graduation as he can, and he plans to return to the community college. He's asked the president, Billie Jo Kipp, if there are openings.

"Any jobs available for me, Dr. Kipp? She said, 'If there's not, we'll make one for you, Charles.'"

Over the phone, Kipp said Archambault is a role model for other students, and she'd like to see him at the college as soon as possible.

"We're hoping that he comes back," Kipp said.

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