When historians talk about a politician riding into office, that's usually a figure of speech.

For former Billings Mayor Willard Fraser, riding into office was a literal truth.

When he beat the man who had defeated him, Howard Hultgren, Fraser took to his iconic bike and rode into the Northern Hotel to waiting supporters and press photographers. 

Willard was back, resurrected from the political dead. Just two years earlier, city officials had tried to invent a position for Billings' best cheerleader, creating a sort of "mayor emeritus."

On that April 1969 election day, there was nothing emeritus about Fraser.


Fraser's campaign manager was a young, former Marine, John Bohlinger, the son of owners of a successful clothing store. In Fraser, Bohlinger saw a man who had a vision for Billings. He also saw a shrewd politician trying to court the younger voters.

"He was the Bernie Sanders of his day," Bohlinger said.

Fraser had the rumpled suits and the big ideas.

"Everybody was welcome at his table," Bohlinger said.

Bohlinger had been asked to help Fraser re-take the city's top administrative spot, then the mayor's position. They decided to adopt the bicycle as a simple-yet-effective campaign symbol.

Two years earlier, when Fraser had been booted from office by voters, he left as an old, somewhat frail man. In truth, he was. His first-cousin Sally Fraser Moskol said his asthma was a serious, life-long problem, only made worse by his lengthy service in World War II. Fraser left Billings City Hall with a cane, the tangible reminder of a broken hip which caused him to sit out the summer campaign season in a Chicago hospital bed in 1968. Shortly after being defeated by Hultgren, he got into a spat with a fellow city council member and caned him. Just a few weeks after leaving office, Fraser said he was hardly well enough to talk to reporters.

Bohlinger had a branding problem on his hands.

So they adopted the bike and plastered it on campaign signs and advertising. Out with the cane, in with the bike. 

Willard's love of bicycling stretched back to World War II, Moskol said. He had decided to bike from continental Europe toward his ancestral home of Scotland at the close of the war. Because central Europe was in economic ruins, Fraser and another friend biked across countries trading the popular Chartreuse liquor which had been given to them by friendly monks as a sign of appreciation for what soldiers had done during the war. Fraser and his friend used the expensive and rare liquor as currency for their travels.

Years later, Willard was still on the bike. 

Former Billings legislator Royal Johnson remembers Fraser biking as far as Roundup to pay a call to businessmen and residents there to remind them to come to Billings.

Fraser believed that Billings' borders stretched 300 miles in all directions.

He could also be seen around Billings on that darn bike, so Bohlinger decided to capitalize on it. A longtime associate of Fraser said with an unmistakable seriousness that Willard on a bike was much safer for the entire city than Willard behind the wheel of a car. 

The bike would help eradicate the idea that Fraser was too old and too feeble to keep up with the demands of the job. 

"We shared the same political hope and thought," said Bohlinger, who himself would go on to become a legislator and a two-term lieutenant governor of Montana. "He was progressive and a Democrat, and I like the way he could articulate a stance on the issue.

"He was a man who lives with hope, and so I said, 'Let's give it a try.'"


Fraser did his best to embrace an up-and-coming youth culture. He was savvy enough to campaign for lowering the minimum voting age to 18, a move that certainly played well with the burgeoning baby boomers just coming of age.

Fraser was still a mayor of paradoxes, though.

The man who was among the first to volunteer for World War II sympathized with the youth of the late 1960s, even though he was a widower and had a young daughter at home. Still, he refused to permit a Vietnam peace march in Billings.

Thirty people had planned to march from City Hall to the airport in 1968, going by what was then the Eastern Montana College campus.

Fraser compared the action to crying "fire" in a crowded theater.

"There may well be some legal reason to protest the legality of my denial," he told The Gazette. At the same time, Fraser said it was his duty to uphold the tranquility, peace and order of Billings. 

"He tolerates long hair because his friends and benefactors have long-haired sons, but his distaste for the current male hairstyles is apparent," The Gazette reported a few years later in 1971.

"'I have just returned from Hollywood,' he says. 'Long hair is out -- it's no longer fashionable.'"

Fraser could also wax hygienic about the "dangers of long hair and beards." 

Bare feet were also banned at City Hall.

Try as he might, Fraser was remarkably un-hip. And yet he was also the mayor who wrote earnest letters to President Lyndon B. Johnson and Ho Chi Minh encouraging them to hold peace talks. In Billings. 

He was a man who cared that people -- youth especially -- had enough recreational opportunities in Billings, which he believed needed golf courses, a ski slope and a lake.


Winning the election had left Fraser even more certain of Billings' bright future and may have emboldened some of his more colorful antics, much to the chagrin of his momentary opponents.

When he was re-elected, Fraser began where he'd left off, writing letters at a frantic pace, glad-handing nearly every visitor who wandered into City Hall, and yet facing the very serious problems of urban renewal as well as an aging and inadequate water system that threatened to leave part of Billings without much water pressure on some hot days.

Fraser helped take credit for landing the 1969 production of the acclaimed movie "Little Big Man" in the Billings area. He parlayed that into a four-day trip -- one of many junkets he took -- to Hollywood to woo other Hollywood producers.

"We gave Hollywood the characters of its Western movies," Fraser said. "This is the natural place to make the films. We've got the scenery, the Indians, the pride. And we've got fantastic weather. There wasn't a day of filming lost because of weather when they made 'Little Big Man'."

When Fraser talked about Hollywood characters, he could have easily lumped himself into that group.

In December 1971, City Councilman Donald Baker wanted to appoint a permanent city engineer, a man whom Fraser didn't appear to approve. When Baker made a motion to confirm the appointment, Fraser struck the item from the city council agenda, leading the exasperated city councilman to call the mayor "a goofy buzzard."

The incident created such a splash that sweatshirts were made for both Baker and Fraser. The white sweatshirts featured a googly-eyed buzzard and read, "I'm a goofy buzzard."

Yet it was Fraser who went one step farther, wearing it to the council meeting -- drawing chuckles even from the opposition and winning the battle momentarily.

And even when Fraser appeared to lose, he still managed to win.

The Billings Gazette ran a few critical articles about Fraser who had used the city's police force as his own chauffeur service. Conservative city council members balked at using the police to shuttle the mayor and disliked the mayor's travel budget.

The council had given Fraser a $100 monthly stipend to provide his own transportation. And yet, Fraser continued to use the squad cars and the city's officers as his own "personal taxi cabs," as one councilmember put it.  

Fraser drew criticism when a patrol officer who could have been on shift to help with a medical emergency was instead spending nearly two hours at Pictograph State Park, as he was gladhanding Boy Scouts for their clean-up there. 

Several other police officers hurried to the woman who had collapsed at her workplace, but they arrived rushed and late, about the same time as the ambulance. The woman died en route to the hospital. Although no council member would come right out and say it, the implication was clear: Fraser's antics may have even cost someone a life.

City leaders were taking note. 

Bohlinger remembers Fraser showing a momentary hint of frustration with the council.

"What good is authority if you can't use it?" Fraser said.

The council decided to trim the travel budget. Of course, Willard wasn't going to take the hit to his chauffeur service without a fight, so he devised a scheme to call attention to the fact that Montana's largest city had left its mayor destitute, unable to get to official city business.

Fraser did what he always seemed to do -- call a press conference.

Then-reporter Gary Svee of The Billings Gazette got the assignment to meet the mayor on Interstate 90, between Billings and Laurel. With a sudden-yet-noticeable limp, a leather suitcase in one arm, and a homemade sign that said "Mayor of Billings, Destination: Helena" Fraser began hitchhiking to the state's capitol en route for a hearing dealing with the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed sulfur emission regulations. 

It didn't take long for a powder blue Mercury to pull up next to him and offer a ride.

Reporters and photographers eagerly vied to travel alongside Fraser, but he rebuffed them all, saying that if they wanted to go, they'd have to hitchhike all the way with him. 

Who knows how they would have gotten back.

Fraser jumped in the Mercury and sped off.

But The Gazette, used to years of publicity stunts and clever put-ons, followed the Mercury where it quickly exited in Laurel -- less than 10 miles down the road. Fraser then got out of it and into another car. The Gazette wrote down the license plate and quickly traced it back to Fraser, who completed the journey to Helena -- in his own vehicle.

In a large, thick headline the next day, The Gazette proclaimed, "His hike had a hitch." Beneath that, "Who's Fraser trying to kid?" And beneath a photo of the mayor holding a sign and a suitcase, "Fraser's folly is finally foiled."

When confronted, Fraser quickly confessed, showing them a leg wrapped in elastic. Hitchhiking to Helena with such an injury would have been impossible.

"Clark Lincoln Mercury had offered him a car to save the mayor a long, painful trip to Helena," reporter Gary Svee wrote.

Most mayors would have been chagrined, even humiliated to have been caught and exposed on the front page of the state's largest newspaper. Not Fraser, though. 

Svee had only thought he'd gotten the best of the scheming mayor. 

The next day, Fraser called Svee, not to complain about the headlines or the foiled plot.

The mayor's car had broken down in Big Timber -- on the way back from Helena. Would Svee mind coming to get him?

"Nobody could say no to Willard and I didn't," Svee said. "He wasn't really stalled, but he wanted to take my wife, Diane, and I to dinner.

"And later as we walked into the restaurant, Willard stopped at a table to say hello to some of his friends. They were teasing him about being caught in his little scam.

"'Oh,' he said turning to Svee with a wink, "'You know you can't believe anything you read in The Gazette.'" 


In the end, Willard Fraser died doing what he loved -- playing Montana tour guide to the famous.

The man who seemed to revel and crave the limelight in Billings died peacefully in a hotel room at Mammoth Hot Springs. The last time Billings residents saw their mayor, he was arm-in-arm with First Lady Pat Nixon, heading for the 100th anniversary of the creation of Yellowstone National Park.

Sometime on the night of Sept. 20, 1972, Willard Fraser's frail body, which had been a carefully kept secret by the man who could hardly seem to shut up, gave out. The attending doctor said it was obvious he had died of a heart attack.

A shocked community began plans to bury its leader.

Addison Bragg, probably the best-known local journalist of his time and a Gazette columnist, took to his typewriter to eulogize a man who lived just a few doors down. Bragg relished their occasional night caps, often discussing what move Willard would make next.

Bragg made the yearly rounds at Thanksgiving and Christmas when Fraser would hop in the police car and insist on traveling to the Montana Rescue Mission and Salvation Army.

"People away from home get lonely this time of year," Fraser would say, "and they deserve at least a hello from their mayor."

At other times, Bragg went on trips larger, more important in scale. Sometimes it was to Washington, D.C. Another time to Los Angeles.

"Everywhere the comment was substantially the same," Bragg recalled in a column run the day after Fraser's death. "'My God, if we could only get a mayor like that here. How in the hell do you people keep him?"