Gil Crain’s love of the outdoors started in childhood. His brother Phil and sister Debra remember vacations to Isle Royale and Yellowstone National Park in the 1950’s and ‘60’s. During one trip to Isle Royale, Gil, 17, went on a walk to visit a park ranger in a remote fire tower. He wanted to be a ranger too, and was determined to learn as much as he could about the career.
Gil eventually decided to study accounting, earning his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Urbana. When it came time to apply for teaching jobs, Gil knew that he wanted to be in a location with easy access to the outdoors—he applied to schools in Bozeman, Montana and Eau Claire, Wisconsin. He taught accounting in the College of Business at Montana State University for 33 years. According to Phil, his brother was “tough and well-liked” as a professor.
One of Gil’s favorite things about living in Montana was the accessibility to the outdoors. He would arrange fishing and camping trips, and volunteered at Yellowstone each summer for many years.
“He never became a park ranger,” his sister Debra reflects. “He didn’t want to be stuck with only one employer. One of his ranger friends told us it was good he wasn’t an official ranger because he would never tuck in his shirt. As a volunteer he got to do the fun stuff.” That fun stuff includes mapping out invasive plant outbreaks and managing Yellowstone’s infamous “bear jams.”
As a volunteer Gil stayed in the park. When he was strong he would hike twelve miles a day. He was a quiet person, but Debra remembers that in the back country he was more talkative so that the bears would know he was coming. Gil also spent many weekends at a second home on the Gallatin River, halfway between Bozeman and West Yellowstone. He loved sharing that place with friends and family, and instilled a love for the outdoors in his two children.
“Opportunities just seemed to come to Gil,” remembers Phil. “Gil had an acquaintance who arranged back country fishing trips in Alaska, and he would call Gil if there was a cancellation---he always had strong connections and found wonderful opportunities.”
Gil was a longtime supporter of The Nature Conservancy, and introduced Phil to the organization. He liked the Conservancy’s business sense, and the determination to get things done. “The work provides a sense of permanence,” says Phil.
In 2005 Gil began to realize that he could no longer make his twelve mile daily hikes in the summer. He was eventually diagnosed with a smoldering multiple myeloma—a cancer of the blood plasma. Gil continued to spend time outdoors in Montana as he could, taking over road patrol in his section of the park when he could no longer be as active. He moved back to Illinois and began treatment in St. Louis, but sadly passed away in 2008.
Gil’s family and many friends created the Gil Crain Memorial Trust, a perpetual trust with annual gifts supporting The Nature Conservancy in Montana. Currently the trust supports the Gil Crain Natural History Workshops at the Pine Butte Guest Lodge in Montana. Dozens of Lodge guests attend these workshops every year to learn more about the natural landscape of the Rocky Mountain Front.
Phil set up Gil’s trust to create a sense of immortality. “You look for a gift that would be meaningful,” he says. “It’s in the nature of our family to be outside. You don’t have mental health without getting outside. We always liked to be close enough to a big city to get things but far enough out that we have some elbow room.”
Thanks to Phil and many of Gil’s other friends and relatives, Gil’s enthusiasm for the natural world lives on, and Pine Butte can inspire a new generation of outdoor enthusiasts with the Gil Crain workshops.
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