It was 1989 when 21-year-old University of Montana students Zack Spannagel and Dan Gavere met at Snowbowl. They were two of only a handful of snowboarders on the slopes at the time; the sport was still relatively new and had barely hit Missoula. On the chairlift, they struck up a conversation and made a deal. "In about the time it takes for the chairlift to reach the top of the hill—maybe 10 minutes—we had shaken hands on starting a snowboard shop," Gavere says.
Hellgate Snowboard Shop began in a small space on Pine Street, then moved to Main Street where the partners launched Board of Missoula. Ross Peterson, a middle-school skateboarder at the time, recalls riding his bike there every day to look at boards and re-rent the only available copy in town of Chill, a Burton snowboard movie. But the biggest allure of BOM wasn't snowboard and skateboard equipment. The shop served as a social space and a way into Missoula's burgeoning alternative scene. At the helm was Spannagel, who took kids like Peterson under his wing, taught them how to snowboard and compete on the slopes, sponsored them and introduced them to reps.
"He believed in all of us," Peterson says. "He gave us all the puzzle pieces to compete with anybody at the time. Board of Missoula was our clubhouse and he was our big brother who was up for anything. Not one of those things would have happened if Zack hadn't stood there ushering us into this world. He defined that whole generation of snowboarders."
Spannagel died Sat., Nov. 14, of pancreatitis at the age of 47. Over the years, he gained a reputation as a lean, cool tastemaker with a heart of gold. He came on the scene right when Missoula was picking up on new sources of alternative culture. Rockin Rudy's was selling the latest indie records and cassettes, the Indy had published its first issues, punk rock bands were filtering into underground venues, and skateboarding and snowboarding exploded.
Board of Missoula, which eventually moved to the Hip Strip, has seen several part-owners over the years, all of whom attest to Spannagel's extraordinary character. Jeffrey France, who owned the shop with Spannagel for six years, says his business partner had an eye for talent.
"If a team member had serious potential, Zack was quick to work with the industry to secure that athlete 'hook-ups' from the manufacturers," France says. "As a result, many of our team members would leave Missoula to pursue their pro careers ... This did little for sales locally, but it put Missoula and BOM on the map in many ways. By the mid-'90s, kids all over Montana wanted to be on the BOM team, and university students from around the country knew what Board of Missoula was before they got here."
If Board of Missoula was a kind of Neverland led by Spannagel, the lost boys and girls he befriended comprise an almost endless list. Comedian and graphic designer Chris Fairbanks, for instance, attributes his career to Spannagel.
"He was one of the first people who told me I was funny and that I should do it for a living," says Fairbanks, who now lives in Los Angeles. "Everyone liked him and everyone has the same story—that he was an influence and early mentor who helped them out in some way by believing in them and giving good advice."
In recent years, Spannagel worked on his family's Montana ranch and painted houses, but he remained a part of the boarding community. It's not hyperbole to say his legacy lives on in—and beyond—the current iteration of the shop, Edge of the World. Part-owner Chris Bacon was a wandering high school kid when he first encountered Spannagel, who gave him lunch money, housed him at times and taught him about the business. As they've grown older, those skateboarders and snowboarders who were influenced by Spannagel continue the work, including building skateparks around the state through the Montana Skatepark Association and sponsoring young snowboarders.
"One thing Zack told me a long time ago was Board of Missoula is bigger than the shop," Bacon says. "It's not just the sticker or the place you buy your board. It's a living thing. It's like a giving tree. I think about that all the time."
A lot of people who knew Spannagel say he lived hundreds of lives compacted into one. He was too young when he died, but what he left behind was a powerful thing to behold.
"Zack once told me snowboarding for him was like a blank canvas," says Wright Hollingsworth, another former BOM owner. "The turns you make are completely your own—the product of what obstacles lie ahead. When you finish, you can turn around and judge for yourself how you did. But because you're at the bottom looking back, you should also remember to be happy—because you had a great ride."
A celebration of Zack Spannagel's life takes place at the Wilma Sat., Dec. 5, at 8 PM with music from Cash for Junkers. Visit montanaskatepark.org