Practical wisdom 

Saying farewell to longtime professor/activist Bill Chaloupka

When Bill Chaloupka leaves town this month, he will be much missed. So will his Ukrainian grandfather.

“‘Love thy neighbor,’ my Ukrainian grandfather once told me,” Chaloupka wrote in a 1996 column for the Independent, one of many that began with some of granddad’s old country wisdom. Of course, it was always wisdom with a twist.

“I knew right away he was pulling my leg, since he’d never even liked his neighbors,” continued. “He paused for effect before completing his sentence: ‘But if that’s not possible, at least keep an eye on ’em.’ And my, do we in western Montana have a neighbor to keep an eye on.” The neighbor in question was Helen Chenoweth, then a freshman congresswoman from Idaho with ties to right-wing extremist groups.

Expounding on national politics is just one of the many extracurricular endeavors that has made Chaloupka such a recognizable name around town. The University of Montana Environmental Studies professor has been a political activist and president of the University’s faculty union. Now after 20 years at UM, Chaloupka is leaving to become the chair of the political science department at Colorado State University. He leaves town the week after commencement and starts his new job July 1.

Looking back on his time in Missoula, he reflects on what it means to be an activist academic.

“There are a number of different ways to be a university professor,” Chaloupka says. “I’ve always seen my role as modeling a certain kind of commitment to public issues and public life.”

One major issue he has dealt with has been education funding. As a two-term president of the University Faculty Association, he has worked with education labor leaders from all over Montana to try to get education funding on the Legislature’s agenda. While he thinks progress has been made, it has been slow going. His own departure from UM, for a higher paying job in Colorado, is related to the same funding issues.

“There’s a terrific faculty here, given the level of funding,” Chaloupka says. The quality of life in Missoula and the strength of the University draw in many professors who could be making more money elsewhere, he says.

A native of Nebraska, Chaloupka came to UM after getting his doctorate at the University of Hawaii. He started off in the political science department, but later moved to environmental studies. There he found he could synthesize his varied academic interests. As a scholar Chaloupka had always been concerned with how political theory influenced social movements like environmentalism.

“Our goal in the department is to bring the theory to bear on real world problems,” says Len Broberg, associate professor of environmental studies at UM. “Bill has been exemplary in that sense with respect to his political work. He has been pivotal in some major changes in local government and I think that that experience and his knowledge of how you work those political realities out has been an important asset for students in our program.”

Chaloupka had been active in the Missoula County Democratic Party for years when some friends of his started a chapter of the New Party here in the early 1990s. From its start until it folded this year, the Missoula New Party provided an outlet for progressives frustrated with the Democratic Party and it changed the face of local politics. Chaloupka was on the New Party’s steering committee and at one point served as the group’s treasurer.

“Bill was a lot of fun, that’s mostly what I remember,” says Ward Two City Councilman Jim McGrath, a longtime Missoula political activist and former New Party member. “Obviously, his academic work was about politics, but mostly he brought an energy and excitement about it.”

McGrath remembers old New Party meetings in which Chaloupka kept people fired up about politics even when they were ready to quit.

“There were times when all of us think, ‘Why politics?’” says McGrath. “Why not something else, why not make movies? Bill has always been able to talk about why a political solution to something in particular might be a really good thing rather than other approaches.”

When he is discussing politics, it is clear that Chaloupka is someone who has found a rare balance between theory and practice. The success of the New Party, Chaloupka says, was in bringing together a diverse coalition of groups, mainly from Missoula’s fertile non-profit community, and giving them common, tangible goals.

“We can’t do the things we want to do in isolated groups,” Chaloupka says. “We need to be involved in elections and coalitions in order to accomplish things.”

Chaloupka is optimistic about the direction in which local progressive politics, particularly the environmental movement, are heading. He cites the work the Clark Fork Coalition has done on the Milltown Dam and the agreement that was reached about salvage logging in the Bitterroot National Forest. While the end results may still be controversial, Chaloupka thinks they represent a shift for environmentalists.

“Environmentalists are really thinking seriously about how environmentalism is going to get along in the rural West,” he says. “Are we always going to be an outpost of national groups, or is there really a way environmentalism can be integrated into Montana culture and politics? I think there is.”

When asked what he will miss most about Missoula, Chaloupka quickly says “summer,” and then laughs. He revises the answer to include all of the friends he has made and the unique sense of community.

“This is a community with a real sense of itself and of community identity,” he says. “I doubt I’ll find anything like it in Fort Collins.”

Chaloupka is certain that he will be back to Missoula for frequent visits. Unlike the chorus of pessimists who decry how Missoula has gone downhill as it has expanded, Chaloupka thinks the city has improved tremendously as it has become bigger and more connected to the world.

“There was probably one espresso machine in town when I moved here, at Butterfly Herbs,” Chaloupka says, grinning. “That problem has certainly been addressed.”

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