Montana State University

Spring 2017

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Mountains and Minds

A lasting impact June 06, 2017 by Jessianne Wright • Published 06/06/17

The Erskines’ family story started with a vision. Helen “Bess” Erskine’s parents, Dick and Dora Randall, bought the OTO Ranch in Gardiner in 1898. The Randalls envisioned not only a working ranch, but a destination: Montana’s first dude ranch. Bess and her husband, Clyde Erskine, operated the ranch during most of the 1920s, and the locale was a mainstay for famous and wealthy travelers, including President Teddy Roosevelt, well into the 1930s.

Today the story of the ranch, and the Erskine family, lives on through two scholarship endowments that Bess and Clyde created at Montana State University.

“Clyde and Bess had no children, but were big proponents of education,” said Clyde’s great-niece, Leslie Hankins. “They were always trying to help.”

Investing in student athletic achievement

After a successful run at the OTO Ranch, Clyde and Bess pursued a career in hotel management that took them from Yellowstone National Park to resorts in California, Arizona and Florida. Eventually, their journey led them back to the Paradise Valley, where their love for the MSU Bobcats began. Clyde, born in Iowa in 1895, took his high school basketball team to the national championships and played basketball and football at Iowa State University. An athlete at heart, Clyde cheered for his local sports teams wherever he lived.

In 1985, Clyde and Bess established the Erskine Excellence in Athletics endowment at Montana State to award scholarships to football student-athletes.

Jason Hicks was awarded the Erskine athletic scholarship in 1994 and 1995, playing defensive end for former head coach Cliff Hysell.

“I was drawn [to MSU] by the strong engineering department and wonderful opportunity to play the sport I loved,” said Hicks, who was from western Washington. “I quickly learned about the rich history of Montana State’s athletic department and wanted to try to help build on the success of past Bobcats.”

While playing football for the ’Cats, Hicks studied engineering, graduating with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering in 1996 and 1998 respectively.

“I grew close to several professors in the engineering department who taught me in-depth engineering principles that will guide me for the rest of my life,” Hicks said. He is now the principal of Hicks Engineering in Bozeman. A true Bobcat, Hicks has employed six MSU graduates in the 14-year history of his engineering firm.

“From my own experience in the MSU (College of) Engineering, … I know these candidates are well-educated, have a developed sense of problem-solving and are committed to accomplishing difficult tasks,” he said.

A more recent recipient of the Erskine athletics award is former football running back and team captain Gunnar Brekke. Brekke may be known for his role on the Bobcat football field, but he said it is his MSU education that has brought him lasting challenges and rewards.

“I never was a big math guy … but I always wanted to learn more about business,” Brekke said. He said he has put his nose to the grindstone, specializing in finance in the Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship, and is hoping to one day own his own small business.

“When I came in four years ago, I knew that as much as football would take over my life, it couldn’t be everything,” said the Helena native. “I had to work hard and get good grades.”

Brekke said he was inspired by the scholarships he received to do his best.

Honoring a ranching heritage

It was rewarding for Bess and Clyde to see the impact their athletics scholarship had on the Bobcats. At the end of her life, Bess made plans for a gift from her estate that would establish another endowment to honor her family’s ranching heritage. After Bess died in 1995, the Clyde and Helen Erskine Excellence in Agriculture endowment awarded its first scholarship to a student who would contribute to the future of agriculture and land management in Montana.

Jay Skovlin was among the earliest recipients of the Erskine Excellence in Agriculture award in 1998.

“I remember going to the banquet for the College of Agriculture,” Skovlin said. “I remember how cool it was to see all these family scholarships. The Erskines donated that money for that purpose. When you receive that money, you want to do well with it. You want to go as far as you can.”

Driven by the support of this and other scholarships, Skovlin went on to graduate with an agriculture degree in soils and is now a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service soil scientist in Montana.

“I’ve learned to appreciate landscapes in a whole new way through studying soils,” Skovlin said. “Every day I’m using the knowledge I gained from my degree at MSU.”

For Linda Johns, a 2004 Erskine agriculture recipient, the initial experience in higher education inspired her to learn even more.
Intrigued by the science-based classes offered as a part of her landscape design program in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology, Johns sought to take as many science classes as landscape courses while attending MSU. She is the current pesticide licensing, registration and training program manager for the Montana Department of Agriculture.

Shaping the future

“Since they were established more than 30 years ago, the Erskines’ endowments in athletics and agriculture have benefited more than 50 MSU students,” said Tyler Wiltgen, vice president of estate, trust and gift planning at the MSU Alumni Foundation. “Endowed funds are designed to survive in perpetuity and serve as a permanent legacy of a donor’s vision. By remembering MSU through planned gifts in their estates, donors like the Erskines inspire and support students for generations.”

Fast-forward to today; the Erskine award continues to equip MSU students for success.

“Coming from a large family, I receive plenty of emotional support and encouragement, but financial resources have always been difficult to come by,” said Noelani Boise, the most recent Erskine agriculture awardee from 2016. Boise is a double major studying environmental studies and German studies and is also taking courses in the Honors College.

“I want to be invested in research that can assist small communities across the globe, including our own here in Bozeman,” Boise said. Originally from Emigrant, Boise has studied abroad and hopes that after graduation she might pursue a master’s degree abroad as well.

“Scholarships can offset the cost of tuition, books and rent for students, but the deeper impact of these awards is that they inspire students to set ambitious goals and make these dreams possible,” said Ilse-Mari Lee, dean of the MSU Honors College.

“I am so grateful to receive the financial support that I do from multiple generous donors who seek to aid students in need,” Boise said. “Scholarships such as the ones that Clyde and Helen Erskine established are truly what make my education and my time abroad possible.” ■

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