The community was not overly progressive (a couple of the taverns on Main Street were “Men Only” and each had a convenient trough running along the floor at the base of the bar). And it was a bit rustic (a pleasant, older woman was a downtown regular, unfiltered cigarette smoke circling her head while chatting with neighbors, holding a leash and walking her bandana-clad coyote). Yep, Sunburst, Montana – rural America a half-century ago. We arrived from Missoula late on a Sunday night, unaware of how naive and pathetically unprepared we were, and never dreaming that we were about to be rescued by a school full of heroes– the faculty, staff and students of the Sunburst Public School System. We bunked in the School Superintendent’s basement apartment – the first of thousands of MCT home-stays. We got our first clue about the nature of the people we would be dealing with on Monday morning. We arrived in Principal’s Puckett’s office first thing and asked to see the boss. His assistant smiled. “Oh no. Not 1st Period today. He’s way too busy.” She reluctantly told us where to find him, and… we found him. There was Gordon Puckett (serious looking middle-aged man, not…well…thin, suit coat off, tie loosened) racing up and down the court, ‘reffing’ a 1st period intramural basketball game in the school gym. “Be right with you. My PE teacher is out with a cold, and these boys need to play ball.” That was Gordon Puckett. And that was Sunburst.
Looking back on the first 40 years of the MCT Tour, the decades when I was at the helm, dozens of moments– dozens of memories– come to mind. Light moments, funny moments, difficult moments, defining moments – and a few… not so pleasant. Ironically, the saddest and most tragic of these was also to become one of MCT’s proudest achievements. Hobson, Montana– a tiny town in the center of the state. Tuesday, March 10, 1998. Early that morning, shortly before school would begin for the day, the tour team (Jason and David) was discussing the production logistics for the week with the school principal in his office. The phone rang. He answered the call. As the team observed his demeanor, they realized that something was terribly wrong. (Phil, if you need a place to direct people for ‘the rest of the story’ this might be it).
As they watched, the color drained from the principal’s face and tears welled up in his eyes. The news was horrible. His school mini–bus had been hit by a roaring freight train as the bus attempted to cross the tracks, just a few miles from the school. Two teen-aged boys- brothers- were killed on impact, and three others, including the driver, were hospitalized in serious condition. A final student on board the bus was physically unharmed but was surely traumatized. Within minutes, the team members – both mature, dedicated and caring guys– were on the phone with me, relating the awful news, and wondering what they should do. I was, of course, at a loss for words. I could only suggest that they do whatever they could to offer any assistance. If that meant leaving so that the little town could mourn without distraction, then offer your deepest condolences and head back to Missoula. It turned out that the wise principal realized that a bit of distraction was just what the citizens of Hobson– especially the children– desperately needed as they dealt with the tragedy. The decision was made to proceed with the tour week. The show was Beauty Lou and The Country Beast. A gentle reference to a death in the script was omitted, and rehearsals began. Somehow, despite breaks for unprovoked tears, reassuring hugs and sympathetic caring words, the show was ready for performance in the school gym by the end of the week. It seemed that the entire population of Hobson, a few less than two-hundred shattered folks, were comforted for an hour, and the cast was proud– still devastated, briefly distracted… but proud.
Upon return to Missoula, the tour team, now in tears themselves, described their emotions as they returned their scenery to the little red truck after the performance– while flower arrangements were carried into the gym for the memorial service. A couple of weeks later, I received a call from the school’s principal. Fighting back tears, he thanked me for the service and compassion the MCT tour team had provided during those heart-wrenching days. And he wondered aloud just how much more difficult that awful week would have been for those kids in the cast, and the entire population of Hobson, without the deep and caring consolation that Jason and David and the MCT tour project had provided. And that’s how the saddest week in my MCT tour history became the source of heartfelt inspiration… and pride.