The fall of former Billings Mayor Willard Fraser began just that way.

With a fall.

In the summer of 1968, Fraser traveled to Chicago to attend an annual national mayors' conference where he would present several key ideas to the group, including his latest crazy proposal -- an initiative to clean the air pollution from refineries in and around his city.

Fraser and his parents had moved from Kansas to Billings when he was a young boy to escape to a climate that was more conducive to his severe asthma. Now, air pollution from the county's three refineries threatened not just the air in town, but Fraser's breathing and weakened lungs.

On Wednesday, June 12, 1968, Fraser checked into Chicago's Palmer House hotel.

"I walked into the room, planning to take a shower and change my white shirt. I had been traveling all day in it," Fraser recounted to Chicago Tribune Reporter Bob Nolte, who happened to be a Billings native. "It was a tub-type shower. I noticed no rubber or paper mat in the tub and that the tub was curved and slippery.

"I lost my grip and began sliding. Before I knew it, I had fallen sideways, the whole weight of my body was pressed onto my right hip and I guess that's what broke it." 

Fraser managed to call for help because of "the unique place of one utility -- a telephone in the bathroom," according to Nolte's article.

Fraser never got to present his proposal, missing the convention completely, being in the hospital for surgery and rehabilitation for weeks. 


Nolte covered Fraser's tumble in the Chicago Tribune, beneath a headline that said, "Hospital Bed is His City Hall." 

"A Montana mayor who once turned a county jail into an art museum has transformed a Chicago hospital room into his city hall," Nolte reported in the Chicago Tribune.

From the bed, Fraser was holding telephone conferences and dictating letters. He made two appointments to the city's planning board and approved six police and fire department promotions from the Chicago hospital room.

Cards and gifts poured in, forcing the city to take out an ad in The Billings Gazette pleading for no more flowers -- there wasn't enough space in the Passavant Hospital room. He had received more than 50 bouquets and 800 cards. 

"My office hours are in the afternoon because of morning therapy so that cuts down my day. I have to write my official letters by hand, and that gets tiring. I need my secretary," Fraser said.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley stopped to see Fraser several times, visiting what he called "Billings City Hall."

Fraser was a big fan of Daley -- a fellow Democrat.

When riots broke out that summer as Fraser convalesced in the Windy City, Willard took to writing his new friend, Daley.

"Police brutality, hell -- let's talk about citizen stupidity and the maintenance of law and order," Fraser wrote.


Laying there in a hospital bed, 1,300 miles away, the man dubbed "The Montana Fireball" couldn't walk. Back home, it was election season. 

The three-term mayor had squeezed decades-worth of progress into six short years. Some leaders were tired. Others thought Fraser's style was too confrontational and unorthodox, although they couldn't argue with the results -- so much so that a political ad by mayoral challenger Howard Hultgren seemed taken straight from Fraser's playbook as Hultgren promised business development, pollution control and meeting more with citizens.

So the stolid, conservative stalwarts of the council got busy campaigning as Fraser was literally laying around.

When the vote happened, Fraser's lack of campaigning was felt. Neither Hultgren nor Fraser took a majority, but Hultgren emerged on top by 798 votes, besting the incumbent 6,295 to 5,497.

The next day, Hultgren said he aimed to fix "the city's credibility gap" and promised to "restore the people's confidence in the city."

For his part, the defeated Fraser issued a statement more fitting for an obituary than a concession: "It has been an interesting six years and as Martin Luther said in his younger years, 'I shall make tracks' and in his older years, 'I have made tracks.' I think that I have made my tracks."

Meanwhile, Fraser sent Hultgren a telegram: "The gavel is yours -- as this day presented by the people of Billings. You now have the opportunity to continue building our city into the metropolis it is destined to be. Wield it with vision and imagination -- remembering always that the Billings we dream can never again be city-limited." 


A broken hip was just the beginning of the mayor's problems.

Just days after the election, Fraser got into a heated argument and took to "caning" a city councilmember while they both were eating lunch at the airport coffee shop.

"The mayor picks his cane and runs it at me like a sword, and shouts at me at the top of his lungs," said Third Ward Councilman Allen P. Wharton. "You wouldn't be able to print what he shouted."

Fraser landed the cane into Wharton's ribs, rendering the restaurant's crowd speechless as they looked on to see what was happening. 

Witnesses reported a man shouting.

"I got the point of the cane in the ribs; I can still feel it," Wharton told The Gazette.

When contacted later that afternoon by a Gazette reporter, Fraser denied the caning.

"No, hell no," he said.

Though he denied beating Wharton, Fraser confirmed the cause of the beating that supposedly didn't happen: Wharton had been passing notes mocking Fraser at a city council meeting.

Wharton explained the notes began as Fraser had been grousing about some cabins he thought were unsightly and falling apart on Avenues E and F. Wharton then scrawled, "The SBA gave Willard $135,000 temporarily to fix his building; it hasn't been done yet."

Incensed at the insult and comparison, having less than a week to go as a lame-duck mayor, and facing foreclosure on his downtown office building, Fraser took his cane to Wharton.

It would arguably be the lowest point in Fraser's public career and possibly the only example when his frustration turned from words to action.


At the same time, Fraser had not only been stung by the mayoral loss but also the complete defeat of city building codes, which he saw as essential to cleaning up blighted and downright dangerous parts of the city. 

From the beginning of his term in office, Fraser had noticed "slums" that he believed needed to be cleaned up both to improve the aesthetics of the city and pull its residents from poverty.

His quest to improve living conditions began when an older American Indian woman pleaded her case to Fraser. Sensing the injustice, it led him on a crusade to clean up the blight and try to enact a series of landlord ordinances that would help protect renters.

Ultimately, both would be defeated.

The first attempt at landlord reform failed. And, in 1969, voters turned down a series of three ordinances championed by Fraser and aimed at improving building standards throughout the city by adopting uniform electrical, building and plumbing codes. The votes weren't even close.

Yet, Fraser -- by then out of office -- was vindicated a short time later. 

A few days after Fraser's defeat and the defeat of the building codes, The Gazette ran the headline, "Billings Loses Millions."

Killing the codes meant that millions in federal funding, which had been lined up to help spur a building boom, would be lost. All Billings would have needed was a vote to approve the building codes. The funding through the Department of Housing and Urban Affairs would have meant millions, maybe as much as $8 million, which translates to more than $52 million in today's money. 

Fraser was right, and the city would literally pay for it. 


Almost as soon as Fraser left office in May 1969, the gravity of his personality coupled with his sweeping vision left some trying to figure out how to leverage this one-man crusade for everything.

The Billings Chamber of Commerce hatched a plan to bring Fraser on as public relations officer "of some type," The Gazette reported, although there had not been a job like it previously. 

"Fraser, whom some considered a better publicist than an administrator, was considered throughout City Hall and in the Chamber of Commerce, sources said," The Gazette reported.

It would be the perfect job for the man who seemed to be at every public function, who considered the best part of his job greeting guests and visitors, and who annually held luncheons for foreign students on George Washington's birthday to tell them about America.

"The idea was to hire Fraser with the city and the Chamber splitting expenses for the public relations operation. It would have provided Fraser with a 'sort of mayor emeritus' status," The Gazette reported.

Still, city leaders were wary after six years of breakneck activity and hurried ideas. This was, after all, Billings, a city known for its conservative approach to politics and business.

Once word of the plot to bring back Willard was leaked to the press, the Chamber ran quickly from it.

"To the best of my knowledge no serious proposal or proposal of any kind ever came before a formal meeting in this matter," said Chamber President Arnold Baron, in a statement that seemed to become more qualified as he spoke.

The Gazette reported that city officials loved the idea, the Chamber not so much.

"Say we approved the idea at $6,000 per year," one unnamed Chamber source told The Gazette. "What would keep Fraser from spending it all in three months? Then he could come to us, pointing to the fine job he was doing and ask for more money. If we didn't come across with more money, we'd have to do without for the rest of the year."

You could almost hear the Chamber officials harrumphing as they talked themselves out of the idea. 


Fraser knew what it was like to lose. He said as much on the night he first won the mayoral race, April 1, 1963.

"While I've had a great deal of experience at losing elections, this is the first time it's been my experience to win one," Fraser said. "At the same time, as a man who has lost several elections, I have great sympathy and real understanding for these men...against whom I have won the election."

The sting of defeat -- after three consecutive wins -- must have been sharp. He must have wondered about losing, possibly for no other reason than being laid up in a Chicago hospital bed while serving as an ambassador for the Magic City.

Fraser's loss was felt acutely by the media as it noticed a lack of copy and seemed bored by the plodding pace of City Hall.

Just a few weeks after leaving office, The Gazette went to check on the man whom it said "lived in the headlines" and was the "very visible" mayor.

He replied curtly that he had been terribly sick with the flu.

He said he didn't have any immediate plans.

And Fraser was telling the truth.

His plans were much, much longer.