Bobcat gold: Gene Thayer and his wife Jane.
Gene Thayer came to Montana State College in 1950 with just $350. It was enough to pay for one quarter of school, a good investment in Thayer's mind as he figured it would allow him to mark "yes" on any job application with a box for college.
It was a better investment than Thayer could have imagined. Fifty-three years after graduating, he is recognized as one of the institution's most successful alumni. With his wife Jane and their family -- Greg, Janie, Brooke, Reid and five grandchildren -- Thayer gave $1.3 million to MSU's Bobcat Athletics program in 2006. It represents the largest gift the program has ever received.
"Gene's gift to Bobcat Athletics has begun a process that will transform our program," said Peter Fields, MSU athletic director. "He saw the need, had the vision and was willing to step forward to be leader."
Having made his fortune buying and selling grain, Thayer hopes his gift will act as a seed of inspiration for others to get involved with Bobcat Athletics and MSU.
"It's my belief that the Bobcat athletic program is on the verge of greatness, and we are going to enter into a new era of being the dominant team in the Big Sky," Thayer said.
Anyone who doubts Thayer's prediction of success need only look at his life to understand his optimism.
Born in 1932, Thayer and his three siblings lived in a miner's shack in Belt, near Great Falls, until he was 10 years old. The shack had no electricity, indoor plumbing or insulation.
Thayer's father only had a sixth-grade education and supported his family by hauling coal and grain, mowing weeds and other odd jobs. Gene Thayer considers him the most influential person in his life: a man who taught him to set goals, work hard and have integrity.
"It was the Depression. We grew up not having very much, and none of our neighbors did either," Thayer said. "I never thought I'd ever go to college. We assumed in our family that we were too poor."
One of Thayer's teenage jobs was nailing shut boxcar doors to keep grain from spilling. The doors were 3-by-8 feet and made of heavy wood. He made $5 a day.
"It was nothing but pure work," he said.
When he turned 18, Thayer used his life savings of $350 to attend one quarter of college as a way to increase his job prospects. By then he had a background in agriculture, and MSC was a natural fit as home of the state's ag college.
After his first quarter, the parents of an Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity brother -- Jack Meuli -- loaned Thayer money for the rest of his schooling. He repaid the Meulis by working several jobs during school and his summers.
"I had a great time in college. (Those were) some of the best years of my life," Thayer said. "I was able to get a good quality education at MSU that gave me the opportunity to succeed in life."
He graduated in 1954 with a bachelor's in agricultural economics -- the first in his family to earn a college degree.
After college he worked as an oat buyer for General Mills on the Minneapolis Grain Exchange, then came to Great Falls to help manage about 25 county grain elevators for the company. When General Mills wanted to transfer him to Oklahoma, he switched to the Greely Elevator Company in Great Falls. When another transfer faced him -- this time to Oregon -- Thayer used $35,000 in savings to start his own grain merchandising company, Montana Merchandising, Inc., now Montana Milling.
Over the next 35 years, Thayer built and bought grain elevators. At the company's height, it was likely the second-largest grain shipper in Montana, generating up to $150 million annually in business. In 1990, he sold the company, keeping only a single elevator he was building in Conrad to process organic grain. His son, Greg, runs the business today.
He also built a reputation.
"I've admired Gene for many years," said Dean Folkvord, founder and CEO of Wheat Montana Farms, Inc. "He's been a true inspiration to many others in agriculture."
"At no time has Gene Thayer ever compromised his integrity or purpose," Folkvord added. "His reputation is sound, and he has maintained the highest standards."
Thayer was Great Falls' mayor from 1980-1982, a Montana senator from 1985-1993, and served on many community and state boards throughout the years. Through his career, especially during his involvement in politics, Thayer came to a personal definition of a strong leader.
"They don't jump to a conclusion when they hear something, and they don't let the press or public opinion guide them," Thayer said. "They are independent thinkers that analyze the situation and act accordingly. That is the way I operated. Often times I voted, or made decisions that were not particularly popular, but in the long run turned out to be the right thing to do."
He puts Peter Fields and MSU President Geoff Gamble in the category of strong leaders, especially in light of the difficult decisions they've made recently.
"Success does not just happen by chance. It is a by-product of having a vision, and most importantly the leadership to bring the vision into reality," Thayer said. "The athletic program is not just about the coach, or the athletic director or the president of the university. It's about the kids. It's about our overall program. It's about the vision for the future.
"Imagine an athletics program that is able to consistently recruit the nation's top athletes, win championships and produce world-class competitors. Imagine also that these athletes are outstanding students, achieving the highest level of academic success, and that they acquire the necessary life skills to become dynamic members of society.
"This is the program Geoff and Peter are trying to build, and my family wanted to do its part in helping to make it happen," he said. "I just wish we had more to give, quite frankly. If I get more, I'm going to give more."
Athletic victories play a vital role in helping increase the visibility and prestige of the university, Thayer said.
"This is our opportunity to help steer a new course for Bobcat Athletics and positively impact Montana State University," Thayer said. "That's why we gave our money, and we hope that other people, other graduates of MSU, will step forward and make their gifts as well."