Where have you gone, Willard Fraser?

Today, Billings still remains the carefully planned community of the former mayor who has been dead 45 years.

Billings Gazette journalist Roger Clawson once called Fraser "a dreamer, clown and politician extraordinaire." Others weren't so charitable, referring to him as a "raving maniac," "goofy buzzard" and "chronic liar."

Today's Billings hardly seems possible without Fraser; and yet ironically, the man whose personality seemed only eclipsed by the size of his dreams remains nearly forgotten by the successive generations who never got a call from City Hall from a man asking, "What have you done for your mayor today?"

They never got to see their mayor at an elementary school, reading the poetry of his famous father-in-law, Robert Frost. They never realized that during his brief eight-year tenure as mayor, Billings doubled the number of acres devoted to parks.

Billings still exists in the shadow of Fraser's legacy.


One of the reasons it may be easy to forget Willard Fraser's accomplishments is because they are overshadowed by his larger-than-life personality. 

The Billings City Council was incredulous when he suggested -- tongue planted firmly in cheek -- that the city allot just enough money in the mayor's budget to allow for a wreath of laurels.

Fraser had been given a bust of himself, made by noted Billings sculptor Rink Davis. He kept it in his office, but it would move to the lobby of The Billings Gazette upon his death so that others could see it, paying tribute to the mayor's likeness.

He was the mayor known for traveling in police-chauffeured squad cars and by bikes. He loved it when the Eastern Montana College president referred to him as "Your Worship," a term borrowed from Canada. He loved diversity in culture, but he loved his own Scottish heritage the most, taking particular pride in Scots Day during the Red Lodge "Festival of Nations."

It's easy to get distracted by a man who got frustrated when the city council axed $5,000 for a municipal band from his budget, and replied, "A city without a band is like a boy without a girl."

Sometimes, he was just plain goofy if not thoroughly entertaining.

"We can't have prejudice," Fraser said. "It would mean the kids would have to live without ketchup on their hamburgers."

You can almost hear the exasperation and bewilderment in The Billings Gazette reporter's words.

"Ask him to unravel that statement and he will spin you a yarn a quarter hour long," said Gazette staff writer Roger Clawson.

The ideas he championed included economic development by directly recruiting business; fluoride in the water; lobbying for a better funding mechanism from the state for cities; establishing the Pictograph Caves as a state park; establishing Par 3 Golf Course; annexing the Heights; improving the sewer and water system; fixing pollution from the area's refineries; adopting city codes to prevent slums; restoring Yellowstone Kelly's gravesite; bringing jet service to Billings; and putting a tunnel through the Rimrocks to connect the Heights.

The list continues. Not surprising for a man who sent out dozens of letters a day. Some ideas were bound to stick.

Even some of his wackiest ideas had sincerity and vision, for example when he proposed a ski slope. At Pioneer Park. 

In the summer heat of August 1964, Fraser asked the city park department to investigate "installing a commercially made ski run in Pioneer Park or in bluffs across the Yellowstone River to the south."

There was an earnestness about his vision.

"Having once mastered a small ski run, wouldn't the people want to try their wings in a major ski area?" he wondered.

Apparently that idea melted quicker than a snowball at Pioneer Park in August. 

Yet some of his bigger ideas still have meaning today.

Fraser suffered from asthma his entire life. In fact, asthma is what gave Willard Fraser to Billings. When he was a child, his family moved to Billings from Kansas because doctors said young Willard needed a different climate. He arrived in the Magic City before cars became commonplace and the refineries were established. But as both grew, so too did the pollution that again threatened his health. 

Because of that, Willard went on a crusade against air pollution in Billings, largely aimed at the refineries. Fraser would not have been surprised by the dangerously high sulfur dioxide levels in Billings a decade later, nor did he live long enough to see Billings impose stricter air quality standards to eliminate SO2. Fraser might even be proud that the city he once led managed to clean up so much that sanctions for sulfur dioxide have been lifted by the federal government. 


Leonard Dahl remembers waking up one morning, reading The Billings Gazette and discovering he'd just been appointed to the city's cemetery board.

Odd, Dahl thought, since he didn't know anything about cemeteries. He'd only casually known Fraser through the Masonic lodge. 

"I called him up and said, 'Willard, I think you made a mistake,'" Dahl recalls. "I think you meant to appoint a Dahl from the funeral business."

Fraser shrugged him off.

"Leonard, I can't appoint someone from a funeral home to be on the cemetery board," Fraser said.

He stood by the appointment and so Dahl found himself recruited.

Willard would sometimes show up to the meetings -- almost always in a police car.

"I remember once walking down the street and this police car rolls up and the door pops open," Dahl recalled. "Well, it's Willard and he says, 'Get in.'" 

Fraser said he wanted Dahl to accompany him to a luncheon meeting -- but was never really clear on which one it was. 

They went to lunch, but there was no meeting. Dahl wound up with the bill.

During his time on the cemetery board, Dahl got to see just how visionary Fraser could be. The mayor dreamed of a public golf course on land the city owned next to Mountview Cemetery. However, the public objected.

"They were worried that a bunch of golfers would be drinking beer and cussing too close to the graves," Dahl said, laughing at the idea.

Through the force of his personality, Fraser persisted, eventually winning his golf course.

But it wasn't just about the big ideas -- like the golf courses, Dahl said. It was much more careful and detailed plans that many gave Fraser credit for.

"There used to be a big fence that ran around the cemetery and mostly it collected beer cans and trash in the wind. It looked terrible," Dahl said. "Willard wanted it down and said to me, 'Come on, Leonard, let's get that down.'" 

When people objected to tearing down the fence, Willard was ready.

"He said, 'Those who are outside the fence don't necessarily want in and those who are in the cemetery aren't coming out,'" Dahl remembers. 


Fraser would take on a number of very serious issues including poverty and what he characterized as slums -- inadequate housing for the poor.

His decision to start cleaning up the town started when an elderly Native American woman approached him, frustrated with squalid living conditions and her landlord's seeming indifference.

Fraser started a northside and southside community action program to improve slums. He pushed for citywide electrical, plumbing and construction codes to make sure Billings had safe housing.

Fraser, who had majored in archaeology at the University of Colorado, also had an abiding love of the Native American cultures that few understood. Many people in the city rolled their eyes when he pushed to get what is now a state park, Pictograph Caves, named as a historic place. 

Fraser was also famous for his strident belief that Billings was the oldest city in North America, being lived in for 10,000 years. When historians and archaeologists would quibble with the claim, he invoked a mayoral prerogative and said that history belongs to those who tell it.

However, his love of Native cultures wasn't just confined to caves. He was a friend to both the Crow and Northern Cheyenne tribes, and would often say the two nearby reservations were as much of Billings as Poly Drive.

When Fraser died, Joseph Medicine Crow would be a pall bearer at his funeral.

Fraser was rightly proud that Billings city government included the only cave commission, something that Carlsbad, Nevada didn't have.

But it wasn't just preservation of Native artifacts that drew Fraser's interest, it was also current conditions.

In 1968, Fraser spoke out, aiming his criticism at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, saying the schools weren't doing a good job for minority students.


At Montana State University Billings, there are several boxes of letters and writings from Fraser. 

It's hard to believe all the letters he wrote and memos he dictated. His secretary estimated he produced as many as 60 per day. 

He devoured the printed word. When he read a story or an article that moved him, or even caused the flicker of a momentary thought, he would dictate a letter -- hundreds to individuals, businesses and organizations.

He lobbied businesses to relocate to Billings. He went to Hollywood to recruit movie producers and advance scouts, believing Billings was ripe for Western films. 

He would irritate other mayors as he rode his bike through smaller towns in the area to invite residents to Billings to shop, eat and vacation.

"He believed that the Billings city limits extended 300 miles in all directions," said former Gazette reporter and opinion page editor Gary Svee. 


Some projects that Fraser championed haven't ever been realized, like fluoridation. Others have been with the city so long, they no longer seem novel, like the Heights. Other projects seemed as if he was looking into a crystal ball.

When Billings decided it was time to move its library from the old Parmly Billings Library (the current home of the Western Heritage Center), it began looking for new space.

When the Billings Hardware building was proposed, Fraser excoriated the square brick building as "not beautiful enough." Meanwhile the library staff called it a "librarian's dream," and said it was similar to the new Cincinnati library and could be made state of the art. 

Fraser had already roiled the waters of the public by suggesting an ideal new home for a library might be at the aging Cobb Field ballpark and that the city may want to build a new ballpark to boot. Citizens were alarmed that their beloved ballfield might be demolished and Fraser quickly retreated.

However, he stood opposed to the Billings Hardware store, even getting a report that concluded converting the space may be a mistake. 

The argument about the building became so heated and so divisive that Fraser got an opinion from the city confirming that he, as the chief city administrator, had the power to hire and fire the head librarian. 

Ultimately, the city would remodel the Billings Hardware building with bonds totaling just less than $1 million. But, in the long run, Willard was right. By the time the library had ended its life, 46 years later, it was woefully out-of-date, leaving some to wonder: Why did Billings choose this building anyway?


He was a character driven by a very big heart.

Svee remembers once when fellow staff member Roger Clawson had written something that irritated Fraser. The mayor called Clawson to his office, and so Svee went along to try to assuage some of the fury.

When Clawson and Svee arrived, Fraser was livid.

"What do you mean telling people what I mean?" the mayor hissed.

Former Lieutenant Governor of Montana John Bohlinger believes Fraser's greatest legacy was the broad vision he had for a Billings that extended beyond its borders.

"He knew we lived in Billings, but that we were also a part of a greater community which included Wyoming, Laurel, Cody and Worden," Bohlinger said. 

And so it is probably fitting that bagpipes piped him home to his grave in Mountview Cemetery -- a graveyard without fences, nearby a golf course he helped make a reality. 

He would have smiled at the pipes that reminded him of his ancestral home in Scotland. He would have loved the ecumenical entourage of his funeral. And he would have been proud that when it came time to say something about him, a man from one of the farthest parts of Billings, Harlowton, gave a few words.

"He dared new trails," said Hal Stearns, the editor and publisher of the Harlowton Times. "He marched to the sound of a different drummer -- and little mortals cannot deny him his place now as a big man with big vision and big dreams."