On Friday morning, April 1, Jeanne Charter told her husband Steve how much she loved him and admired him as a person. That afternoon, driving to the northern part of their ranch to work on a project with her husband, she died instantly in a three vehicle accident near mile marker 22 on Highway 87 North.
Born on April 20, 1949, to Hans and Jenny Hjermstad, Jeanne grew up in the Chicago area with her brother, Chris Hjermstad. Jeanne graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in Greek and Latin, then at the University of Michigan, she earned a master's degree in environmental studies.
She came to Montana during the coal boom of the early 1970s and met Steve when both were young staff members at Northern Plains Resource Council, a group formed in 1971 by ranchers and conservationists to protect the land and people living on the land from (then unregulated) strip mining and, later, from a variety of predatory practices, including excessive centralization and price manipulation in the livestock feeding industry.
Jeanne and Steve married in 1975. They raised a son, Ressa, and a daughter, Annika, while working the Charter family ranch in Hoskins Basin north of Billings and in the Bull Mountains south of Roundup.
In the best tradition of the Old West, they readily joined a close-knit group of neighbors to help gather cattle and brand calves, Jeanne was a shining example of the using the word "neighbor" as a verb. At home on horseback, Jeanne also developed a sixth sense about how to handle cattle and keep them calm.
Innovators in all aspects of ranching, from sustainable grazing practices to developing local markets for range-fed beef, Jeanne and Steve also challenged the federal government in court, alleging that the beef check-off program was no longer accountable to the very ranchers who raised the beef and paid fees to fund the program.
Jeanne and Steve also extended their innovation and teamwork beyond their ranch and beyond the cow-calf industry. They continued their work with Northern Plains on a variety of issues, including work with two affiliate groups — Bull Mountain Land Alliance and Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council — to promote local foods.
They were longtime supporters of AERO, Montana's Alternative Energy Resources Organization, advocating for clean renewable energy and energy conservation. Their own home is a partially underground, passive solar structure heated chiefly by a wood stove.
Jeanne lived by "being the change she hoped to see in the world." She became a familiar face in television news interviews, wrote thought-provoking letters to the editor and offered eloquent, incisive testimony at public hearings. No one was tougher or more determined in fighting for a cause.
She was passionate about life, about family and neighbors, about sustainable living and ecological stewardship. "You could fill a book about Jeanne," one friend says, "and not say enough about Jeanne and Steve's acts of kindness toward others."
Jeanne leaves us feeling incredible pain and loss,
Yet we have but to open our hearts to find her with us.
She lives on in our lives with her indomitable spirit
and in the work she inspires us to continue.
Preceding Jeanne in death are her parents, Hans and Jenny Hjermstad; father-in-law Boyd Charter and mother-in-law Anne Charter. She is survived by her husband Steve and son Ressa of the family ranch; daughter Annika of Shepherd; and her brother, Chris Hjermstad of San Diego; as well as sister-in-law Katherine "Kit" Nilson and husband Hank; and brother-in-law Joe Charter and wife Donna, and their families.
Services will be held on Saturday, April 9, at 1 p.m., in the Elks Club at 934 Lewis Ave., Billings. Arrangements are through Smith's Downtown Chapel. The family recommends that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to Northern Plains Resource Council or to the charity of your choice.