By Perri Knize
Ken Egan grew up the fifth of seven children to a high school English teacher father and a writer mother. “We siblings were always having elaborate literary arguments,” says Egan, who met me on a snowy November day on the University of Montana campus in Missoula. “There was always a lively discussion. I loved that dialog.” It is a passion that has carried over into Egan’s work as executive director of Humanities Montana, which runs on the motto “Learn. Reflect. Together.”
Humanities Montana’s “Public Affairs,” “Reflect,” and “Open Book” initiatives send facilitators into communities, bringing citizens together to explore tough questions: How should Montanans inhabit the land and deal with issues around agriculture, coal mining, and tourism? How can people living in eastern and western Montana cooperate? Given the seven Indian reservations in the state, what is tribal sovereignty and what does it mean for cultural and political life on the reservations?
By using the principles of “Gracious Space,” a method of discourse that creates an atmosphere of tolerance, difficult conversations can be held in a spirit of cooperation and kindness. “Coming together to speak respectfully but passionately about the issues—Montanans are good at that,” says Egan, flashing a youthful grin. “People come ready to play, they get engaged. It can get addictive.”
Egan grew up immersed in American and British classics, his father’s passion. He cites Huckleberry Finn as the seminal book that he “absolutely fell in love with” as a child. Later he discovered Montana’s literary tradition while teaching at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, after graduate school at the University of Wisconsin and a one-year stint teaching at Vermont’s Middlebury College.
While away, Egan began devouring the Montana canon—from Ivan Doig to James Welch to Richard Hugo. The fruit of that immersion is Hope and Dread in Montana Literature, an analysis of the region’s character as expressed through its books. It’s a character shaped by landscape, by beauty, and by deprivation. For Egan, “Western literature is my private sanctuary.”
Egan’s Montana roots go deep. His grandmother, Hazel McCarthy, staked 320 acres on the prairie south of Flaxville, in northeastern Montana, in 1913, and taught school there until she fell in love with Hugh Egan, a banker from Beach, North Dakota. When his grandfather lost his banks during the Depression, the family bought the Fergus Hotel in Lewiston and ran it for thirty years. Egan’s father, Ken Sr., was raised and began his own family there before eventually moving to Helena, where Egan spent his boyhood. Grandma Hazel joined them there.
“She was a spitfire, a powerful presence, the spiritual guide of the family,” Egan recalls. “It was Grandma who challenged us to serve the state.” Egan was so profoundly influenced by her that he later wrote a novel based on her life.
Egan and his wife, Terry, raised their sons in Billings, but when they left home, Egan decided to try something different. For seven years he was chair of the English department at Drury University, in the Missouri Ozarks. “It’s really beautiful there—lush streams, rivers—but I was desperately homesick, and I discovered that I didn’t like administrative life.”
When he joined Humanities Montana in 2009, Egan was leaping into known territory. He had been a board member from 1989 to 1992, and was already in love with the council’s mission. “In this work, people know that books, philosophy, ideas, discussion, and community matter,” he says.
Humanities Montana’s largest program is its Speaker’s Bureau, a stable of experts on call to give talks and lead discussions statewide. Its One Book Montana program chooses a book for everyone in the state to read and discuss: This year it is Richard Hugo’s Selected Poems. And the highly successful Montana Festival of the Book has brought regional and national authors to the state for the past eleven years.
But the civil discourse programs remain nearest to Egan’s heart, and, he says, a model for the nation. They foster real-world, practical problem-solving, and are hosted by Humanities Montana board members in their home towns. The organization has brought that model online as well, with its Humanities Roundtable discussions at www.humanitiesroundtable.org.
Egan’s dreams for Humanities Montana are pinned on reaching ever wider and more diverse audiences, both geographically and culturally. The state itself is enormous, a small town with very long streets, as the local saying goes. With a ten-hour drive from west to east, bringing programs to the state’s far corners is a challenge, but one that Egan takes as an “ethical imperative.”