I don’t remember whether snow was on the ground yet, but was there for the ensuing weekend.
This was a chilly November day and clouds were thinner, one seeming to paint a mustache on Our Lady of the Rockies as she looked approvingly at the U.S. High Altitude Sports Center being built below her watch.
Darkness was riding in, as it was later in the afternoon — 3:30, 4 o’clock or so. Hudson Willse and Rick Foote came to my desk that afternoon in 1987 and told me about how they needed someone to drive out to that a new speedskating facility under construction and find a story, any type of story, to write for the newspaper.
The World Cup was coming and, of course, it was a big deal. Olympics were only three months away, so winter sports interest was heightened and Butte was a new guest of honor at the party.
Still, the arrival had not been ignored, but notice was certainly underpublicized. The sports desk had just finished football and girls’ basketball seasons, including high school playoffs. Wrestling, huge here at the time, was starting and boys’ basketball was delving into another campaign. College basketball was up and running and looking good with men’s coach Rick Dessing prowling along and barking from the sidelines. Relentlessly.
However, we were almost embarrassed. This huge undertaking had dropped into our laps and we couldn’t clear a flat space wide enough to land it. So, I was sent to try to grab a subject out at this track and direct its flow with some verbs. I felt the tightness in my stomach as I dodged ice patches on Continental Drive and turned through the boggy weeds giving way to a parking lot. I had no idea what to look for and so fretted about whether I’d find it.
I marveled at the smoothness of the ice on the oval and peered over my shoulder at empty buildings and a parking lot missing traffic.
“Can I help you?” a woman’s voice called, and I turned to see a form I thought I recognized. She stepped a couple times closer and I walked her way and then recognized Judy Martz.
She looked concerned, held car keys and her winter coat was undone, as if she were leaving and had just put on her coat as she walked toward one of the three or four cars in the lot.
She recognized me. When I’d moved to Butte not quite 10 years earlier, Judy took on the responsibility to submit results of the motocross races. Her son, Justin, raced. The races were on circuit stops from all over the state. Judy traveled and duly wrote up the placings and either called them in to me Sundays, or she sometimes dropped them off at the office.
It was not long before I knew it was OK to save some space in Monday’s paper for the motocross report because Judy always turned them in a timely manner. She was dependable.
So, now on this 1987 day, I explained to her that I needed a story from the speedskating center, but didn’t really know how to wedge into it. I then suggested I interview her as she was acting as the director for the center for the time being.
Judy suggested I instead talk to a skater or two. We both looked around the High Altitude grounds, though, and could see none.
“Just a minute, come with me,” she said.
We walked over to a modular building set up behind what was becoming the warming house at the oval. She knocked on the door and a young man in a stocking cap and skate suit answered.
We went inside. The modular sat with no furnishings on the inside except for some benches lined along the walls.
Two young men were changing from skates to boots and relaxing on the benches. Judy told them who I was and about my quest. Then, she turned to me.
“Bruce,” she said, “I’d like you to meet two of our Team USA members — Nick Thometz and Dan Jansen.”
Yes, that Nick Thometz, the same who went on to become an Olympic skater and coach, and THAT Dan Jansen, the then future Gold Medalist whose victories and heartbreaks chorded the sport for a decade.
I got my story. It was thanks to Judy.
She also advised me on how to approach Bonnie Blair for an interview that week and helped smooth the way for interviews and quotes from world-class skaters from all over the globe. Judy, you see, was an Olympic speedskater in 1964 and spoke the language of the sport. She was also very nice — a willing public servant, long before it became her profession.
In the 10 days since being at her funeral, I’ve thought, over and over, of how decently Judy Martz always treated me — from the motocross results and skate track through her days as Montana governor early this century.
I know I’m not the only one, either, and the thought that she treated so many in such manner boggles the mind. She held an office of great importance, but refused to consider herself as being greatly important. Her nephew, Rev. Bob Crippen, said at the funeral service in the Butte Civic Center that Judy Martz viewed “herself as a Wal-Martian,” that with regular folk was where she was most comfortable.
It’s probably never been more obvious than in today’s Democrat and Republican bickering that politics needed Judy Martz more than she needed politics. I told a good reporter some years back I thought history would treat her administration better than the present did. The newsman, still active in the profession (thankfully), raised his eyebrows, but we’ll see.
When I was seriously hurt in a late 2002 wreck, Judy’s thoughtfulness shined for us again. She sent a card — to my wife. It was a statement of support and spiritual outreach to help guide Eileen through a tough time and gather her strength to help me through mine. Judy knew I was getting plenty of support and well wishes, so much appreciated, too, and thought of how Eileen needed some care, too. Eileen has the letter put away for safekeeping and we’ll never forget the gesture.
She knew humor, too, and really didn’t seem to care what part she played in it. The summer after the wreck was when Matt Vincent and Alicia Knievel were married. Vinny, the future local Chief Exec, was pushing me in my wheelchair across the lawn of the wedding hall on the summer day minutes before he took his big step on his big day. Vinny felt a need to hurry as guests arrived and so rocked my chair back and sped across the yard. If there was a high gear, we were in it. I heard a woman calling out, “Bruce, Bruce” and looked over my shoulder to see Judy Martz running across the lawn after us, waving her arms, then yelling, “Matt! Stop!”
One of the remembrances, I’m told often, of that special day, even with Evel Knievel, the greatest daredevil, in charge, was the hilarity of the governor of Montana dashing across the lawn in heels trying to catch up to the sprinting groom and a busted-up sportswriter, as the latter hung onto the arms of his wheelchair for dear life. I’ve since wondered if the ride might gain honorary membership into the Knievels.
Judy caught up, checked on how my recovery was going and wished me well.
We talked somewhere between a few and several times over the years and usually for great length. We never discussed politics — not a word.
There’s no heaven if Judy Martz isn’t in it.
— Bruce Sayler has been covering sports in the Mining City for four decades. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @brucejsayler.