News & Features

The Legacy of Pat McVay

McVay, the state’s first certified hunter education instructor and a sportsmen’s icon, passed away on May 18

Pat McVay, the state’s first certified hunter education instructor beginning in 1957, passed away on May 18, two months after his 100th birthday.

McVay has been described as a “legend” and “visionary” in Montana’s hunting and outdoors community. In addition to spearheading the state’s hunter education program and teaching it for six decades, he hunted for more than nine decades, beginning when he was 6 years old. He logged thousands of miles in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and never tired of the mountains.

McVay trained generations of hunters, endearing himself to legions of children and parents alike with his commitment to hunting ethics and safe firearm practices, as well as his genuine love of people. He had a quick wit and nimble mind, which hardly lost a step through his 90s as he continued teaching hunter ed courses in the basement of his home east of Kalispell.

“Pat was an icon for so many people,” said John Fraley, the former information and education manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Region 1 who oversaw the hunter ed program for 27 years. “He had a way about him that made people feel they were special and that he cared about you, and that really translated to kids.”

Born Hollister Pat McVay in 1920 to a farming family in Oklahoma, he once told the Beacon he knew from birth that he belonged in Montana and convinced his mother to move here when he was “two weeks old.” He grew up on a homestead south of Great Falls, where his grandfather gave him a .22-caliber rifle when he was 6 years old.

“He just told me be damn careful,” McVay recalled in a 2015 Beacon interview. “That’s the only advice we got.”

McVay took a job at a lumber mill, trained as a machinist for the U.S. Air Force and then served in the U.S. Army from 1942-1946 before landing a job at the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington. He transferred to the Hungry Horse Dam in 1952 and never left the Flathead Valley.

The popularity of hunting was increasing across the U.S. in the 1950s, but without formal training programs, that rise was accompanied by an uptick in accidents, primarily involving guns. McVay wanted to develop a formal hunter safety program in Montana and sent a letter to the NRA, which had a safety program for young shooters, asking for materials that he could use for a homemade course.

Members of the state’s first certified hunter education course held in Hungry Horse 1957 and led by Pat McVay, back row, third from left. Courtesy Photo

Then in 1957, propelled by McVay and a few others, the Montana Legislature passed a law establishing the hunter education program with McVay as its first instructor. The program has been instrumental in training new hunters and limiting accidents ever since. McVay also pioneered the local 4-H shooting sports program.

“He was so passionate about hunting accidents — they’re not that common anymore because of required hunter ed — and he would cut articles about accidents out of the paper and tell the kids what went wrong,” Fraley said.

Fraley developed a close relationship with McVay over the years and features him in his forthcoming book “Heroes of the Bob Marshall Wilderness.” One chapter describes McVay’s key to longevity: a shot of whiskey a day and two long trips through the Bob a year. Fraley calls the book “my ode to Pat” and showed him a layout of the chapter at his 100th birthday in March.

Although tales from McVay’s time in the Bob Marshall Wilderness could fill multiple volumes, Fraley said McVay told him: “I never wrote any of it down. I just kept it in my heart.”

“I felt really privileged to be able to document that for him in the book,” Fraley said.

In a 2010 interview with the Beacon shortly after his 90th birthday, McVay described another key to life, and happiness.

“Working with the kids has been the most rewarding thing,” McVay said. “I get the feeling that you never wasted a minute you spent with a kid.”

If you enjoy stories like this one, please consider joining the Flathead Beacon Editor’s Club. For as little as $5 per month, Editor’s Club members support independent local journalism and earn a pipeline to Beacon journalists. Members also gain access to www.beaconeditorsclub.com, where they will find exclusive content like deep dives into our biggest stories and a behind-the-scenes look at our newsroom.