BILLINGS - Most folks, even in Billings, don’t know the name Willard E. Fraser.
In a state with colorful characters and larger-than-life locations, like Butte or Virginia City — places synonymous with Montana — few may guess one of the most consequential, colorful and visionary leaders was a Democrat from Billings.
However, Willard Fraser often referred to himself as mayor for all Montana, not just the state’s largest city – and while his colorful antics often overshadowed the serious policies and reforms he championed, a new book hopes to carve out Fraser’s rightful place in Montana’s history, reports the Daily Montanan.
“Willard E. Fraser: Montana’s Visionary Mayor,” has just been released by the Montana Historical Society Press, and author Lou Mandler has been working on the full-length book treatment of Fraser for several years.
Fraser is a case study in tenacity and hard work. He lost nearly a dozen elections in his lifetime, but persisted, eventually winning the top city administrator spot in a divided race just about the time Billings’ population eclipsed other Montana municipalities like Butte and Great Falls for the title of the state’s largest city.
But just happening to be in the right place at the right time isn’t Fraser’s claim to fame. Instead, the Billings Democrat who counted liberals from Sen. Mike Mansfield to future Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger as friends, became a one-person dynamo of boosterism, vision, and sometimes pushing projects through by the sheer force of his willpower.
In a time before fluoridation, Fraser advocated for adding it to the city’s water supply in order to promote dental health, even though he was never able to get the other city leaders to agree. He had a love for Native American culture and believed more needed to be done to incorporate indigenous history into local places and stories. He pushed for citywide building codes at a time when there were absolutely none. And he foresaw the rapid growth of his adopted hometown and started trying to build water, street and recreation that was ready for the population explosion.
Though so many of his ideas would be borne out by history, including going on a crusade against the county’s three oil refineries to clean up air pollution, they were often dismissed as too extreme for the stolid, conservative community. Undeterred, the son-in-law of Robert Frost drew from a seemingly never-ending well of ideas to make Billings and Montana better. Fraser was an unabashed booster for Billings and Montana, and even insisted that no snow plowing equipment was necessary because of the city’s warm chinook winds.
Mandler said she decided to tackle Fraser as a book topic because his outsized personality often overshadowed the visionary politician he was. The book project is several years in the making, and though Fraser died a half-century ago in 1972, he was a prolific letter-writer and politician, with headlines and news accounts trailing his visits wherever he went.
“This is a guy who embraced the Western myth, but didn’t ride a horse but was very consequential,” Mandler said. “He was a character, but often that meant you can’t be someone who makes a difference. But people loved him, and it’s hard to underestimate what he meant to Billings especially because people did kind of know him as colorful or likable.”
But beneath an almost outgoing, effusive and frenetic persona was a political animal who ran the city with a strong arm, one that was so profound that nearly as soon as he died, the city changed its form of government.
He was often in hospitals because of dangerously bad asthma, and yet managed to convince the city and its largest employers, the refineries, to adopt more stringent air pollution controls, something that earned Fraser a national reputation as a reformer.
And if Fraser couldn’t persuade people with the force of his ideas, he often fell back on his sense of humor.
“He would say that he liked all kinds of pie except humble,” Mander said.
The mayor who was once called a “goofy old buzzard” by a fellow a city council member after a heated exchange in council chambers appeared at the next meeting donning a sweatshirt with a black buzzard and the same words, demonstrating his ability to turn the tables and own the criticism once aimed at him.
He had big ideas, including a plan to tunnel through the sandstone rimrocks that line the city to make quicker trips to Billings Heights. He thought the city needed a lake, even though Lake Elmo was nearby. And he fought for environmental issues like more protections for the Yellowstone River, cleaner water and clean air – things that would predate the creation of the Environmental Protection Act.
Fraser was also the kind of leader beloved by many different tribal communities, which were treated more like novelties by leaders than as constituents. Fraser was known for having a speech translated into Crow before delivering it to a community on the reservation.
He pushed for what was then Eastern Montana College (now Montana State University – Billings) to become a premier center for Indian studies.
He also saw his role pushing far beyond the city limits of Billings.
“He would say that I am not city-limited,” Mandler said.
And much to the chagrin and amusement of leaders from around the state, Fraser would often show up at service clubs and Chambers of Commerce to tout the benefits of Billings, or to promote Montana.
“He was Montana’s biggest ambassador,” Mandler said.
Though Fraser had political rivals, including a hiatus between his tenure as mayor, being defeated in 1968 by Howard Hultgren, who ran on a campaign of a return to normalcy, Fraser was admired even by his critics, who couldn’t help but laugh at some of his antics. He could often be found racing up Airport Road to greet a busload of tourists who stopped for a visit at Billings’ Boot Hill.
“I thought, ‘There must be something bad, but I couldn’t find too much, and as much as people scoffed at him, he had no skeletons,” Mandler said.
And it would be exactly that role — as part ambassador, part pitch-man — where he died. In 1972, First Lady Pat Nixon was celebrating the 100th anniversary of the creation of Yellowstone National Park. She arrived in Billings where Fraser threw a welcoming party full of pomp of pageantry. He joined the First Lady for a tour of the park, and left with her entourage. During that night, out of the town he loved, Fraser died of an apparent heart attack.
“City governments are different now, and there’ll never be another like him,” Mandler said.
To see the author…
Join Billings Mayor Bill Cole and MSU history professor Keith Edgerton for Lou Mandler’s talk about her newly
released book, “Montana’s Visionary Mayor: Willard E. Fraser.”
- Thursday, September 29, 6:30–8 p.m.
- MSU–Billings Library auditorium
1500 University Drive, Room 148
Editor’s note: Daily Montanan staff member Darrell Ehrlick has written several articles on Willard Fraser for The Billings Gazette, which have been credit and acknowledged by Mandler in the book.