Continental Divides

Back Where I’ve Always Belonged

To the Beacon’s many readers, I look forward to the day our paths cross

By John McCaslin

Howdy Flathead Valley, it’s been a while. 

Forty-two years ago this month, in fact, that then-Kalispell Weekly News publisher G. George Ostrom kindly persuaded a dubious owner of KOFI Radio, Bill Patterson, to take on a newcomer with a thick southern accent as the station’s next newscaster.

I’d revered George long before knocking on his door and introducing myself that milestone summer of 1980, hoping the renowned newspaperman might have a story or two in need of a byline. A premature news junkie growing up in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, every Christmas I’d been gifted a subscription to Montana’s largest weekly by Notie Larson, women’s fashion authority at the Kalispell Mercantile and my grandmother. 

A carrier of more conventional newspapers, I was immediately captivated by the weekly’s blown-up images of mountains, lakes and wildlife I’d come to cherish from family trips to the Flathead. But mostly it was George’s gift of storytelling, his trademark whimsy that set his newspaper apart – and hooked me on journalism.

I’ve never forgotten my first day on the job, joining other reporters for a news briefing in the cramped basement of the former Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, now an historic landmark. Everything about the old brick building felt familiar. That’s when it all came rushing back. 

Two decades earlier my grandfather, Selmer “Si” Larson, was chief civil deputy under Sheriff Dick Walsh (a longtime family friend, when Dick died in 2001 a mule hauled his hearse to the cemetery). The jail tours Grand Si would provide his visiting grandsons were notoriously up-close and personal, although in those tranquil times the county’s few prisoners were more obliging than menacing. Still, if his intent was to keep our young noses clean, it worked.

Si’s parents, Lewis and Clara Larson, were eastern Montana homesteaders from Norway. My great-grandfather served in Montana’s House of Representatives, and although badly damaged in the “Flood of ’64” (the deluge inundated Si and Notie’s tidy cottage on River Road in Evergreen) I hold dear a framed portrait of Lewis posing with fellow lawmakers during Montana’s Seventeenth Legislative Assembly in 1921. Prominent in the background is Charlie Russell’s celebrated mural of Lewis and Clark meeting the Flathead Nation Indians, the cowboy artist’s largest masterpiece.

How I was begotten back East is explained beneath the 1953 Daily Inter Lake headline: “Former Kalispell Girl Wed to Washington D.C. Man.” In those days the local paper covered every detail of the St. Matthew’s nuptials and Elk’s Lounge reception, right down to who “poured the coffee” (Mrs. James Farrell), “attended the punch bowl” (Mrs. Robert Ford), and “cut the cake” (Mrs. Robert Bennett). 

The article pointed out that the former Wanda Larson, sister of Wayne Larson, had been with the FBI for nine years, mostly at bureau headquarters in Washington. J. Edgar Hoover didn’t allow female “agents” in his ranks, but given mom’s undercover counterespionage operations she was every bit the equal. On a brighter note she’d fallen in love with special agent Robert McCaslin, a G-Man since 1939.

I was manning the news desk of KJJR-KBBZ in Whitefish when word arrived of my mother’s cancer diagnosis and after four of the best years of my life I headed East. In the four decades since I’ve been blessed with a beautiful daughter and thrilling journalism career.

Still, a part of me was left in Montana. To the extent that when a publishing house approached me 20-odd years ago to write a book on White House and Capitol Hill shenanigans, the opening two chapters consisted of grizzly bear stories, some bloodier than others. 

The dumbfounded publisher only agreed to keep the manuscript intact after realizing that one of my bear tales surrounded a prominent leader’s camping trip to Glacier Park during a time when the grizzlies were biting more than usual:

“As George Herbert Walker Bush stepped out to scan the horizon, his bodyguards—their job to take a bullet for the president and vice president of the United States—began to unload a large cache of weapons. They wouldn’t be taking any chances, not given the recent bloodshed. Considering the awesome strength of the terrorists known to be hiding in these woods, no weapon would be too powerful.”

I happily returned to the Flathead in early 2021, reuniting with my extended family and many friends, 94-year-old G. George included (in our conversation last week the raconteur ran the gamut from Mike Mansfield to Donald Trump). Meanwhile, I am beyond pleased to pick up where the accomplished Dave Skinner left off. Dave all of these years has climbed a tall mountain, and now he can enjoy the view.

To the Beacon’s many readers, I look forward to the day our paths cross. In the meantime please feel free to be in touch.

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