Reflections on local heroes, part 2: a column by Tony Smith

“Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck”

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama


Asa Wood Jr. High School Administration, in collusion with my parents, determined, after two years, that they couldn’t bear to part with me, one who possessed a unique blend of wit, charm, but “distinctive immaturity”, and that another year under their guidance and tutelage would be advantageous not only to them, but to me as well. Being “held back” (a euphemism for “flunking”), didn’t quite carry the stigma that it might these days, and looking back I can’t say that I was particularly stunned by the decision; rather, it was a new set of friends, another year of basketball eligibility, and (although I didn’t realize it at the time) an extra class reunion to attend. However, that decision foreshadowed one of the most significance epiphanies in my life, one that affected my own teaching style for some 38 years at Troy High School and continues to this day, my 41st year, including a stint in an Alaskan Inuit Eskimo village at the mouth of the Yukon, and three years at Turning Winds Academic Institute in the Yaak Valley, all due to the introduction of two teachers in my life: Mr. Bud Nowell, and Mr. Tom Stayton.

If memory serves me correctly, Mr. Nowell taught our morning classes, followed by Mr. Stayton in the afternoon. Thus the morning invariably began on a positive note, and the afternoon refreshingly ended the same. Both men were extraordinarily dynamic, having complete control over a classroom environment, infused with storytelling, humor, and empathy for those of us who struggled academically without sacrificing high expectations for each one of us. However, the lesson imparted most effectively, and one most relevant to my own teaching, was a sense of self-worth: dignity, respect, and sincere personal interest afforded to each one of us by Mr. Nowell and Mr. Stayton. Both men were experts in their fields, ran a “tight ship,” and knew how to reach kids, pure and simple!   The academically well-prepared students invariably take care of themselves, but the struggling or less academically mature kids often need a bit more nurturing and perhaps a different approach. How do I know this? Because I was one of those kids! And thank God Mr. Nowell and Mr. Stayton recognized that. As a teacher, countless number of times have I hoped that I’ve even come close to emulating the standard those outstanding men modeled for me: Well-versed, dynamic, positive, respectful, empathetic men!

One lacks words to express the impact Phyllis Mackey (nee Eide) had on our childhood musical experiences, and later, as adults, set the standard for musical excellence in the Libby community largely because of her.  Previous music classes might have had a tendency towards unruliness, but not on your life would that be the case with Ms. Eide. We were taught “pitch,” “harmony,” and how to blend at a young age, but most importantly, we were taught musical discipline and to love singing to the core of our being. Over the years, Phyll taught private lessons in voice and piano (and as a fierce competitor, I might add, has given a golf lesson or two), but of course the “Treasure Tones,” under her direction, were a Libby icon, unbelievably spanning nearly one-half century. The final “Treasure Tone” concert was given on December 12, 2009, and never again will Libby experience the “Treasure” of the “Tones.” In my view, she will always be the “First Lady” of music in Libby, and my family, as well as countless others, will be forever indebted to her unselfish commitment to all of us.

As a young, fledging basketball player, David Stephenson would often allow me to join him in his Sunday afternoon “shooting sessions” at the Memorial Gym, which of course at that time was the Libby High School Gymnasium, having a floor considered one of the finest in Montana. Obviously Coach Racicot had provided David with a key (although I surmised that Mr. Stephenson had a key for every gymnasium within a 200-mile radius. I still do!), and the anticipation of joining such a skilled player and a powerful role model for a young man was a memory I’ve never forgotten. And how could I’ve known at the time that Mr. Stephenson would be responsible for making the most significant decision affecting my life, by hiring me at Troy High School where I spent the most meaningful years of my teaching career, surrounded by a superb teaching staff, and memories of kids that will last a lifetime. All due to one decision based on chance and perhaps “a hunch,” one that altered my life forever. How I could possibly thank him for such a magnanimous decision on my behalf? Perhaps by acknowledging the enormous success of his own children, Heather and Brent (I suspect Carole Ann might have had something to do with that), and relating an anecdote about Brent, one I’ve never shared with either David or Carole Ann. As chance would have it, I had the pleasure of “mentoring” Brent for his practice teaching stint at Troy High School. Since I was coaching girls basketball at the time, Brent would often join me as an assistant and participate in drill instruction. On our first “road trip,” to Stillwater Christian in Kalispell, Brent and I sat in front together to discuss class-instruction issues, anticipating the lessons to follow. Now, anyone involved in basketball “out-of-town” bus trips is aware of the pecking order that is strictly enforced: “C” team girls in front (If the bus is mixed with the boys team, “C” team boys are in front since they are of a different species), JV girls in the middle, and Varsity girls claiming the most private and restful seats in the very back.  However, after our routine stop at Happy’s Inn, I began to hear more “mature” voices directly behind Brent and me—voices of senior girls-having coerced the “C” girls out of their seats, thereby moving the “JV” girls to the back. In my experience, Varsity girls come to the front of the bus for only two reasons: (1) to request a bathroom stop, or to ask, (2) “where do we eat after the game?” However, in this case: (3) to get as close to the most handsome and charismatic young man they had ever met, and it wasn’t me! For the next 45 miles to Kalispell those girls asked the most inane questions-falling all over themselves-with none of them making eye contact with me. They were a marvelous group of young women and a joy to coach, but at Wendy’s (see question 2) following the game, I sternly reminded them of bus protocol, all the while suppressing my laughter as well I could. Of course, I never blamed them!

Mary Reynolds had been teaching at Troy High School for exactly ten years when I was hired by Dave Stephenson in 1977. Prior to that, she had served three terms on the THS Board of Trustees, and was Chairperson for a number of those years. Mary was originally from the Mid-West (Missouri), met her husband Larry back East, and together they purchased 250 acres on Lake Marie Reynolds (today known as Lake Renee-a 40-acre lake that can be viewed from the upper Burnt-Dutch road in the Yaak) and where she raised three of her children. That experience alone is tremendously significant in itself, but Mary Reynolds was not content to serve on Schools Boards; rather, she preferred to be where the real action was, in the classroom, and after receiving her teaching certificate began a teaching career that extended for 18 productive years, enhancing not only the lives of her students, but of all who knew her, especially her colleagues. Mary was one of the most respected educators in THS history, teaching English, Political Science, Journalism and Drama. Her passion for teaching, her wisdom, and belief in kids was remarkable, and while possessing an even-keeled temperament, she could have the “toughest of the tough” blubbering like babies after a good “chewing out.”

After being hired in the spring of 1977, Mary called me that summer and “tutored” me, familiarizing me with the curriculum, the students, and giving valuable advice and insight into the systematic things I should have an awareness of. Rarely has anyone had such an advantage before beginning a career in education.

From my personal experience with Mary Reynolds, it is my belief that all newly-arriving teachers should have a senior staff member assigned to them (one in the same field), walking them through expectations, the curriculum, and providing the wise counsel Mary provided to me.

Mary departed this world on March 27, 2015, and it is my firm conviction that THS Auditorium should be known officially as the Mary Reynolds Theater. She was a remarkable woman, and the memory of her contributions to THS and the community of Troy should not be lost to future generations.


 “When a person doesn’t have gratitude, something is missing in his or her humanity.”

Eli Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and author of “Night