Obituary: Thomas Harrison Crawford III

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Posted at 12:41 PM, Nov 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-07 14:41:33-05

Thomas Harrison Crawford III, known unpretentiously as “Tim” to his tribe of diverse, beloved friends, passed away gently Saturday, October 29th, just after the sun had set in the Gallatin Valley. In many ways, the timing of his departure into that gentle, peaceful night was fitting.

Tim would have turned 83 in late November. A social fixture on Bozeman’s Main Street, he had a penchant of showing up for others in need. Whether one reflects back today on their own memorable interactions with him or if you are just now hearing about Tim for the first time, the chances are good that he supported something that made your life better.

Tim was born in southern California and spent many youthful summers on a family ranch near Hayfork. He enrolled at UCLA, and, for a time, was enlisted by film studios to take publicity photos of stars during the late 1950s and 1960s in Hollywood. For many years, the ranching operation his family was associated with, Vale and Vickers, owned Santa Rosa Island, today part of Channel Islands National Park, where they ran cattle and had an elk hunting operation.

While living in Santa Barbara, Tim had a circle of friends that included well known literary figures and artists, among them Anais Nin. Growing up with emotionally distant parents, Tim received fatherly mentoring from the cowboys he knew in Hayfork and it led to a lifelong fondness for rural people. Always seeking adventure, he went north and worked on remote firefighting and trail crews for the U.S. Forest Service in Alaska.

The profound landscape changes he witnessed in California with its high population growth left a deep impression on him and he never wanted the same transformation to happen in Montana. In route to his arrival in the Gallatin Valley, Tim spent a few years in Idaho and was an elected member of the Ketchum City Council in Sun Valley. He was an outspoken advocate for wilderness and restoring salmon populations nearly wiped out by dams on the Snake-Columbia River system.

Shortly after he resettled in Bozeman he met and fell in love with Kathy, his wife and partner of 32 years. They yearned to have a deeper connection to the land. In the early 1990s they set out through the Gallatin Valley and happened upon a piece of property that flanked the East Gallatin River off Dry Creek School Road. It was in kind of rough shape. Riverbanks were flattened and muddy by cattle overgrazing; the uplands had been haphazardly farmed and weeds were proliferating. Turning Pheasant Farms into an oasis for wildlife has been an ongoing shared passion.

In 1997, Tim and Kathy placed their convictions about wanting to protect the nature of their beloved Gallatin Valley into practice. Working with the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, they put their farm and its 310 acres into a conservation easement, ensuring that it will never turn into a subdivision. Their action influenced their neighbors and today a long stretch of the East Gallatin and its riparian corridor that is important to wildlife is preserved in perpetuity. They also helped the Jolly Neighbors Club restore the old Dry Creek schoolhouse which is used today for community events.

Among Tim’s savored daily rituals at Pheasant Farm—the place north of Belgrade that he and his wife, Kathy, stewarded along the East Gallatin River—was rising to meet the glowing light of dawn in the east over the Bridgers or watching colorful ethereal dusks on the western horizon. Often, he captured those glad scenes with his camera, part of a portfolio of imagery that spanned six decades of taking photographs across the West.

Over the many years, Tim drove into town every day to tend to his business dealings, but his real intent, the one that gave him most joy, was holding court in his office and discussing local and global affairs with those lucky enough to stop by and join him for lunch. Tim knew many of the shop owners on Bozeman’s Main Street by their first name.

It’s fair to say that the current trend of reviving historic structures on Main Street started with Crawford. During the 1990s, when developers and some members of the local chamber of commerce were touting how the future of Bozeman lay in new commercial development strips, Crawford pushed back. How? He bought a beautiful historic building on Main Street at the corner of Tracy Avenue badly in need of restoration and he used it to plant a flag. He believed in the spirit of downtown Bozeman as being a place that was friendly and relevant to the community, foremost to locals.

Over the years, Tim would grieve when, one by one, old mom and pop businesses vanished—places that he considered social pillars—and were replaced by stores that catered foremost to tourists. Just one expression of his stubborn devotion to Bozeman was the renovation work that he and Kathy supported at the Emerson Cultural Center and today the main theater—which has hosted hundreds of events there—bears their name.

Later, after the Bozeman School District announced that it was selling the Emerson Lawn and word circulated that it might fall into the hands of a developer intent upon building high-price condos, Tim stepped forward with a huge donation to ensure local citizen efforts to save the lawn by acquiring it for public use, was a success.

Few realize it was Tim who put that campaign over the top, the same as his playing an influential role in supporting entities like HRDC and its heroic work running the winter warming hut for people without a home, constructing affordable housing for income-limited families, and providing hot meals for those in need. As a writer for Bozeman-based Mountain Journal, he penned the widely read and irreverent “Citizen Crawford” column.

Among the topics he explored: he photographically documented the razing of a trailer park that resulted in low-rent tenants being displaced and the land re-covered with expensive town homes. Last year around this time, he embarked on a tour of Bozeman to see a constellation of differing homeless encampments. He would show up and ask the itinerant people to share their stories and inquire if there was anything they needed. He would hand out cash so they could get sufficient clothes for winter, and he steered many to the warming hut and Fork & Spoon to get hardy meals. He would meet single mothers struggling to give their children a reason for hope, and he would weep, incredulous that a boom town like Bozeman with so much wealth had created so much hardship.

In his marrow, Tim was a devoted environmentalist/conservationist. He grew up hunting and fishing and said that nature gave him solace. He avidly attended gun shows, getting to know rural people, allowing young people to experience their first hunt on some of his lands, and he was a dead eye, be it with rifles, muzzleloader, handgun or shotgun. Outings at his farm featuring clay pigeon shooting, to watch wildlife or strolling along the pathways he created into the brambles were always memorable. Menfolk cherished his status as an elder.

Indeed, a countless number of western Montanans have only two degrees of separation via connections to places that Tim Crawford protected or to literally the hundreds of organizations (social, civic, conservation and arts) he supported and were near and dear to his heart.

Tim had his own personal struggles and was the kind of guy who often kept them hidden, not wanting to bother his friends. The irony is he often called to make sure others in his life were okay following traumatic events in their own life.

Tim’s friends remember how taken he was with his soon be wife, Kathy, shortly after they met. She was a professor in geography at Montana State University and helped established the Center for High Elevation Studies. Outgoing, they were quite a pair. At Pheasant Farms, Tim taught Kathy how to hunt deer and pheasants and it was along the banks of the Gallatin that she became an avid fly-fisher. Kathy’s only failure—perhaps it was an impossible undertaking—is that she couldn’t get the bashful Mr. Crawford to dance.

Tim was a good neighbor always forging relationships across fence lines and as a way of honoring the longtime farm and ranch families nearby, he made profile photographs of people that for years were hung at the Mint Bar & Grill in Belgrade and today adorn Open Range Restaurant in downtown Bozeman. Tim had an amazing eye and was constantly working on new photographic series. He chronicled a pair of Great Horned Owls raising their owlets, he had a native flowers series, another that highlighted the intricate patterns of nature, and he could even make blooming Russian thistle look beautiful.

A wicked schemer, he enjoyed mischief. Quietly, he would order bumper stickers and distribute them to his friends. A favorite to many was one that read “Armed and Liberal.” Like the trout he enticed by placing a fly, perfect for the season, on the Gallatin, Tim delighted in getting a rise out of unsuspecting souls whom he thought were taking themselves way too seriously. Unleashing commentary to lighten a mood, he was not captive to comporting himself with any sense of political correctness.

A decade ago, Tim and his good friend, the late flyfishing legend Bud Lilly, established a public access site on land he owned along the Gallatin River near Logan. He also underwrote the Emerson Cultural Center’s installation of solar panels, and he did the same for the headquarters of Northern Plains Resource Council (a non-profit devoted to innovative, conservation-driven farming and ranching) in Billings, the schools of Roundup and a few in Bozeman. As owner of a ranch near the Bull Mountains outside Roundup, Tim was actively thinking about climate change issues. He supported the Montana Environmental Information Center’s campaign to keep Bull Mountain coal in the ground to prevent more carbon emissions hastening the greenhouse effect.

Tim was also on a first-name basis with many of Montana’s governors, U.S. senators and Congressmen, state legislators and heads of agencies like Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks. He was a fearless defender of public lands. He loved the art of language and coined, as a rhetorical pugilist, what truly could be considered “Crawfordian” turns of phrases. He ranks as one of the most prolific letter to the editor writers in the modern history of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. Indeed, it was amazing how much of a punch, albeit always stinging with cleverness rather than toxicity, he could pack into his 300-word missives.

He and Kathy adored the road trips they took across the West with their dogs as company. A voracious varied reader, his office was a constant clutter of magazines ranging from low-brow Fur, Fish & Game to The New Yorker and Harper’s. He always had a couple new books going, purchased from his favorite local spots, Vargo’s and Country Bookshelf. He also loved the old Poor Richard’s and Phillips (before they disappeared from Main Street).

There wasn’t a dog in the world who wasn’t smitten with Tim after meeting him. His occasional prickliness was merely cover for a person who was softspoken and introverted, not wanting to draw attention to himself and grateful to the kindness of others.

Nothing would’ve made Tim Crawford happier than having his friends gather in a room and, in his memory, raise a toast vowing to make their community a better place and be an unflinching force for the protection of nature. On Monday, November 14, a public celebration of Tim’s life will be held promptly at 4pm in the Crawford Theater at the Emerson Center for the Arts & Culture, followed by a party next door in the ballroom ending at 7pm.

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