Living in and representing Teton County in the state Legislature ranks high on the list of accomplishments for the 2014 Gentleman of the Bench Gordon McOmber.
A longtime Fairfield resident, Gordon is a veteran, has farmed for years, served in the Montana Legislature, was director of the Montana Department of Agriculture and was a Montana lieutenant governor.
As the honoree for this year’s Swim Days celebration, Gordon will lead the Swim Days parade on July 19. However being in the lead of the parade isn’t something new. He has driven a restored Army jeep with the flags at the front of the Swim Days parade for more than 10 years. “I always wanted a Jeep and after retiring I advertised in three states looking for one. I found one, just two blocks away,” he laughed. He had it restored and proudly drives whether leading a parade or giving youngsters rides around town.
Born in Magrath, Alberta, Canada, to American-born parents, Gordon will celebrate his 95th birthday in October. He moved to the United States when he was 10-years-old with his parents and five brothers and sisters. The family first lived in the Cascade area, moving four years later to the Fairfield bench.
Gordon graduated from Power High School in 1938. “I was fortunate to land a job at the Anaconda Co. in Great Falls as a truck driver and in construction. Working there I received more in one week than most farm labors did in a month,” he said.
He farmed with his father before acquiring his own land. He remembers contracting with his father to put up hay on the site where the current high school stands. He started his own farm with 70 rented acres of native sod that he broke up with machinery borrowed from his parents. He purchased three homesteads west of Fairfield and kept adding to the farm as homesteaders gave up on their dream and left. “I started with land from three homesteads and ended up with 13 in the Golden Ridge area. The land that is still owned by the family today,” Gordon said. “The operation was both farming and ranching with irrigated crop land and 300 head of sheep.”
He left the area for a few years, serving in the Navy in the Philippines.
Serving in the Legislature was something Gordon had toss around but hadn’t established a timetable. “In 1955 the Democratic party in Teton County had lost a couple elections and were looking for a new candidate to run for the Legislature,” Gordon said. “My name came up and I ended up running and being elected. With legislators receiving just $10 a day for the 60-day session it was often easier and more economical for farmers and ranchers to serve than businessmen.”
McOmber served 11 sessions in the Montana Legislature representing Teton County. He served in the House of Representatives from 1955-1962 and the Montana Senate from 1967-68 and 1971-77.
He was the first Montanan elected Senate president by his peers under the provisions of the 1972 Montana Constitution. In one of the letters of recommendation for the gentleman of the bench the nominee said, “Gordon was elected as president of the Senate because of his honesty and the trust of colleagues from both sides of the aisle.”
He served as the president of the senate for three sessions.
He resigned his Senate seat in 1977 when he was named director of Montana’s Department of Agriculture by Gov. Thomas Judge. He was re-appointed to that position by Gov. Ted Schwinden in 1981. On a state level he also served on the state board that negotiates water rights with Indian tribes and federal agencies, the Montana State University Advisory Council, the state water pollution control board and water law revision council. He received the Distinguished Service award from the National Governors’ Association.
“I could tell you some stories about my days in Helena,” Gordon laughed. He talked of how time consuming it was in those days when all of the bills were read on the floor of the House or Senate, or how they would take a voice vote. “Just like today the Democrats and Republicans had their own ideas but when it came down to the end of the sessions they came together and did what was best for the state,” Gordon said. “I had friends on both sides of the aisle.” When time ran for the session to be done, the lawmakers would just place a towel over the clock and continue until all issues were resolved, Gordon said.
“I zeroed in on water and agriculture and worked hard for the betterment of both,” Gordon said.
His work in Helena took him away from Fairfield off-and-on for 20 years but he always considered the bench his home.
Over the years he served on the school board, on the board of directors for the Greenfields Irrigation District, was a member and chairman for Fairfield Farmers Oil Cooperative, served as the commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Fairfield and member of the American Legion.
Gordon has collected rifles of his own and told of helping the local VFW with some they had received. He wasn’t sure the whole story of how the local VFW acquired four machine guns, but he volunteered to register and store them. Years later he sold them and the funds were used to pay off the note on the VFW Hall.
After the old Fairfield Community Hall burned, Gordon chaired the fund-raising committee and was instrumental in securing the funds to build the current community hall.
In the early years during Swim Day, Gordon carved the pit-cooked barbecue meat for the lunch in the park and sometimes drove a tractor in the parade. “Ross Peace and I are the only two left that used to do that in the early days,” Gordon said.
He has been a life-long member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with his parents active in starting the ward in Fairfield.
When he has had time, he has enjoyed traveling, flying, working in his yard, going boating and spending time up at the cabin with his family. He has especially enjoyed working in his yard and creating a waterfall at his home in Fairfield.
Gordon is lucky to have had the love of two special ladies in his life. He married Marian Corbett in 1941 and she died in 1965. The couple had three children, two sons and a daughter. His two surviving children, a son Dennis (Elaine) McOmber and daughter Sandra (Len) Taylor, live in Fairfield. He has nine grandchildren, 17 great-grandchilden and one great-great grandchild. His son Gene (Kathy) is deceased.
He met and married Jean Handel, who served as executive secretary to Gov. Forrest Anderson and Thomas Judge. She died in 1991. He and Jean enjoyed traveling, spending time on his boat “Curlew” on the Missouri River at the Gates of the Mountains where it was docked and time at the cabin in Benchmark.
Following the death of his second wife, he returned permanently to live in Fairfield.
In the last 14 years, he has been active with the Fairfield Senior Citizens Center. He has delivered meals and served on the local board and the Teton County Council on Aging. He was appointed by the Teton County Commissioners to serve on the Area 3 Agency Advisory Council on Aging.
One of the letters nominating Gordon for the honored summed up his love of Fairfield: “He has always had a strong interest in Fairfield and has been a supporter of community events, a statesman and an excellent Gentleman of the Bench.”