Construction of "a new house of learning" began Wednesday when Joseph Medicine Crow joined School District 2 officials, community members and Crow tribal leaders to break ground on the middle school that is to bear the dignitary's namesake.

The phrase was Medicine Crow's as he addressed a crowd of perhaps 100 who had gathered on the campus for the new school in the Billings Heights, the first public school to be constructed in Billings in nearly 30 years.

"Right now, work is in process to build a new house of learning, a new school right here," Medicine Crow said.

At 101 years old, Medicine Crow is the oldest living Crow veteran and often considered the last Plains War chief for deeds performed during World War II. He's also a scholar, author and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The decision to name the school in his honor had generated controversy after school board trustees selected it over options that had received more votes in a public survey.

On Wednesday, the feeling was of warmth, honor and awe.

Bouck presented the honorary guest with a blanket, which was draped over Medicine Crow's lap as he addressed the crowd in Apsaalooke and English.

"Billings is, like me, getting older," Medicine Crow joked. "But also, like me, better."

Wearing a headdress, sunglasses and a trio of honorary medals, he called the city his "second town," adding that he's been coming to Billings for the past 100 years.

"Billings is my town, and I'm certainly proud and glad to see Billings growing bigger and better in the field of education," Medicine Crow said.

He concluded his remarks by urging children "to carry on, make Billings a bigger and better city in the country."

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The vast campus the crowd stood on, now a field of dirt, will become an anchor for the Heights and the broader community when the school is completed in fall 2016, school leaders said.

"Today, we look to the future," Superintendent Terry Bouck said. "This school will mean smaller class size, more opportunities, a strong, safe environment and a stronger community."

Officials thanked the community for supporting the historic $122 million bond in 2013 that has allowed the district to build the first of two new middle schools.

Greta Besch Moen, vice chair of the SD2 Board of Trustees, said the school is "solid evidence" of Billings' commitment to education and will cement the bond among community members in the Heights.

The building will be built on a unique 34-acre site on a campus that includes Bitterroot Elementary school and will feature numerous athletic fields and walking paths.

Dusty Eaton, principal of A&E Architects, added that students who participated in a design workshop "had a critical part in the design of this new middle school."

The speakers and school board members stood alongside Medicine Crow as they turned over the first dirt for the new school.

As soon as the ceremony concluded, a line of adults and children formed to meet Medicine Crow and take a photograph with him.

Nikki Neville, a parent, was excited for her children to meet a man she called "a living legend."

Her family has been learning about Medicine Crow at home since his namesake was chosen to represent the school her three children will eventually attend.

"He was a war chief and had to steal horses," fourth-grader Ashton Running Crane said, referencing Medicine Crow's wartime deeds.