Obituary: Dr. Pierce Mullen

Posted at 12:53 PM, Mar 29, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-29 14:53:13-04

Pierce Cornelius Mullen, our beloved father, grandfather, teacher, and friend, passed away suddenly on March 16, 2022, while walking with his wife of 63 years, Margie, on a beautiful almost-spring day.

Pierce was born on March 4, 1934, to Neil Mullen and Ruth Pierce in Hastings, Nebraska. Pierce’s early engagement with education would not have predicted academic success: bored by kindergarten, he was known to escape out the window and run home to play. Fortunately, the nuns, his insatiable curiosity, and his love of reading eventually overcame his restlessness. Pierce graduated at 16 years of age from St. Cecilia High School in Hastings, Nebraska and first attended St. Benedict College in Atchison, Kansas. Pierce completed his BA at Hastings College in 1957, his MA at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, in 1958 and his Ph.D. in History from the University of California, Berkeley in 1964.

Pierce served in the United States Air Force at James Connally Air Force Base in Waco, Texas. His goal to become a pilot was not to be, due to recurrent ear infections in childhood, so Pierce became a military librarian and was honorably discharged in 1955. While in Waco, Pierce attended Baylor University and boxed in Golden Glove matches.

In the summer of 1957, Pierce met the love of his life, Margaret “Margie” Montague, while working as a seasonal ranger in Yellowstone Park. Margie was working at the soda fountain at Fishing Bridge during summers off from teaching middle school in Cut Bank. Pierce and Margie were married in a private ceremony in Missoula, Montana, on August 7, 1958, after which they moved to the Bay Area for Pierce to attend UC Berkeley.

Upon completion of his Ph.D., Pierce and Margie made the move to Bozeman after Pierce accepted a job at what was then Montana State College (1963) and helped to develop bachelor’s and master’s degree curricula for what was to become the Department of History in 1964.

At Montana State University, Pierce’s particular focus was on the history of science and the history of the military. He continued to hone his expertise through participation in National Humanities summer grants at Harvard, UC Santa Barbara, and West Point. Pierce was a teacher’s teacher: his office door was always open and his mentorship spanned generations of students. One of his greatest joys was continued friendships with his former students. Pierce was Department Head of History, Government and Philosophy from 1969 to 1975 and retired from MSU in 1996.

Pierce’s involvement in education at the state level included being a founding member of the Montana Committee for the Humanities, helping to establish the Governor’s Humanities Award, and participating in the Montana Constitutional Convention. Pierce collaborated with Drs. Jeffrey Safford and Robert Rydell on the MSU Centennial History Project, In the People’s Interest, in 1993. Pierce forged lifelong friendships with Drs. John Opitz and Phillip Pallister while participating in a series of statewide programs on the ethical, legal and medical aspects of birth defects and genetic disorders.

After retirement, Pierce led Lewis and Clark tours for Elderhostel (now called Road Scholar), organized and participated in courses for Wonderlust, and in 2000, joined a committee founded by Dr. Volney Steele through the WWAMI program, which established a series of annual lectures on the history of medicine in Montana.

Pierce and Margie travelled to Europe, which included a visit to Margie’s relatives in Norway. They made regular visits to San Diego and Hillsboro, Oregon, to visit grandchildren and celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in Kauai with their entire family.

Deeply engaged in the university and Bozeman communities, Pierce was a member of the QK Club (Quest for Knowledge), AROHE (Association of Retiree Organizations in Higher Education), and was president of the Headwaters chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. Pierce relied on his community of neighbors and friends for lively discussion on everything from the state of the world to iPhones. He met regularly for lunch in downtown Bozeman with ‘the Curs’, using Zoom when pandemic restrictions didn’t allow for gathering.

Pierce’s favorite role became that of grandfather par excellence. He kept track of his grandchildren’s activities on an almost daily basis, even though none live in Bozeman. He supported their academic and athletic pursuits with phone conversations and regular e-mails. Each grandchild was also the lucky recipient of many books, purposefully chosen for them based on their interests.

Pierce was predeceased by his parents, Neil and Ruth, and his sister, Mary Jo Connely. Survivors include his wife, Margie; his daughter, Lisa Mullen Salz (Don); his daughter, Suze Mullen Engbretson (Michael); and grandchildren Lena and Owen Engbretson and Nicholas and Annika Salz. Pierce is also survived by his dear brothers, Dennis J. Mullen (Marlene) and Thomas B. Mullen (Cathy), and the extended Mullen family.

Pierce was an exemplar of erudition, humility and kindness, a life very well-lived. A Celebration of his Life will be held this summer in Bozeman.

In lieu of cards and gifts, please consider a donation in his honor to the Bozeman Public Library, the Lewis & Clark Heritage Trails Foundation, or to the Montana State University Alumni Foundation-Pierce Mullen Memorial Fund.

Arrangements are in the care of Dokken-Nelson Funeral Service.