University of Montana’s Longest-Serving President Dies

George Dennison, a 1953 Flathead High School graduate, was 81

By Beacon Staff
George Dennison - Courtesy photo

George M. Dennison, who served as president of the University of Montana from 1990 to 2010, died Tuesday, Jan. 3, after a battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He was 81.

“George was not only our longest-serving president, he was among our finest,” UM President Sheila Stearns said. “With his expansive vision, tenacity and optimism, he seemed to think the University of Montana could take over the world. That confidence was always half-scary and completely contagious. The University of Montana has lost a wonderful champion, and I’ve lost a dear friend.”

Dennison passed away the morning of Jan. 3 surrounded by family. His family is planning for a celebration of life in May, and details will be shared as they become available, according to a UM news release.

Dennison graduated Flathead County High School in 1953. He married Jane Schroeder of Kalispell in 1954. He served in the U.S. Navy after graduating high school until 1957. After serving, he returned to Montana, where he enrolled at UM in Missoula and earned a B.A. in history with highest honors in 1962 and a history master’s degree in 1963. He earned his history Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 1967.

The Dennisons journeyed from University of Arkansas to the University of Washington and then Fort Collins, Colorado, where George began his career in the world of higher education as a history professor at Colorado State University. He served as provost and vice president for academic affairs at Western Michigan University for three years before taking the job at UM.

George Ostrom, a longtime radio personality in the Flathead, recalls growing up with Dennison during the Depression Era as the sons of hard rock miners, living in log cabins near Kila and working at the Flathead mine.

“We were poor, and it never occurred to me that any of us might go to college,” Ostrom recalled.

When Dennison was named president at UM, Ostrom reported the news over the airwaves choked with emotion. He then served under Dennison on the UM President’s Citizen Advisory Council.

“I couldn’t help but think about how we ran around the mountains in our raggedy old overalls, and I got emotional,” Ostrom said. “I was so proud of him. Under his leadership, UM made giant strides in academics, sports, financially. He was just a master at getting along with others and he was a wonderful scholar.”

His tenure as UM president was a time of sustained growth and accomplishment. Student enrollment increased nearly 50 percent, from 10,055 in 1990 to nearly 15,000 in 2009. The University also added 1.3 million square feet during his tenure as president, which equates to 20 percent more total usable space. He also built a culture of philanthropy among UM alumni and friends, increasing the campus endowment from $17.3 million to $120 million. He completed two fundraising campaigns for buildings, scholarships and other needs.

He was awarded many awards and honors during his career, and his extensive curriculum vitae mentions scores of presentations, research reports, publications and special administrative assignments. He is the author of two books, including “Montana’s Pioneer Naturalist: Morton J. Elrod,” which was published this past September by the University of Oklahoma Press.

Dennison is survived by his wife of 62 years, Jane, and two sons: Robert, a retired teacher and coach in Tecomseh, Kansas, and Rick, the offensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos, along with seven grandchildren and a great-grandson.

A celebration of Dennison’s life will be held in May.

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