How We Got Through College (Shorter) (Even Shorter)

How We Made It Through College

I returned from a mission to London, England in August of 1975. I applied at MSU. Where the few hundred dollars for application and tuition came from, I can't remember. I stood in registration lines dressed like am executive in white shirt, tie and pinstriped suit, the only kind of clothes I had. Professors passing by, seeing me, were reminded of former times when most applicants dressed more formally. What they didn't know was that these suits were all the clothes I had, my only defense against nudity. Nudity was unacceptable in 1975, not so much now.

I enrolled in agriculture. Here was my line of reasoning: Raising children on a farm would make them wholesome and instill in them a work ethic. Affording a farm was unlikely, inheriting one, out of the question; My agricultural enterprise would have to be funded with as little as $25,000, for equipment- land would be leased. Further, I would have to produce a labor-intensive crop, returning comparatively large revenues per acre. Truck farming- growing peas, lettuce, or carrots- fit the criteria. The degree that MSU offered that most likely called for small tractors was Horticulture. That's what I chose. Later on, I became interested in Landscape Design, part of the Horticulture emphasis. It was a little more glamorous, too, especially when I was told there was such a thing as a Landscape Architect. I even considered preparing for and applying to Landscape Architecture schools where one could get a master's degree.

I bought a Chevy Impala for $100.00. Karst Stage was hiring school bus drivers and Vandivers were taking renters so I signed on with both. At the end of the first quarter, I was out of money to pay for another. Dr. Chapman, Assistant Dean of Agriculture, and one of those who remembered my suit, listened to my situation, reviewed my grades which were straight A's, and said he knew of some money in a scholarship fund he could promise me. A couple of days later, I came back for the $150.00. Now I would consider it a small amount, but at the time, it was a god-send. I appreciated Chapman's approval and his efforts to get the money. It felt like a big support.

The bus route was Kelly Canyon. I drove from 7:00 until 8:30 in the morning and from 3:15 until 5:00 in the evening. Classes fit neatly into the 9-3 block. I was a lame driver. I ran out of gas more than once. Lucile Sparks, co-owner with her husband, “Sparky”, reminded me that it is much easier to fill up the top half of the tank than the bottom half. One icy day, the bus lost forward momentum. Brakes set, the bus slid backward twenty feet into the ditch. A tow truck eventually came. Sparky had no idea of my unsuitability as a driver. The job paid the rent, bought gas, and afforded few enough groceries to keep me trim.

Though the Impala ran well, it had no heater. It would not keep the windshield outside or inside free of ice. When temperatures dropped to minus twenty, I wore two stocking caps, squinted my eyes and stuck my head out the open window to drive across town at 6:30 a.m. to the bus barn.

I could only afford about half of the textbooks suggested by the professors. If in the first few weeks of class the teacher didn't refer often to the books, they became a low priority to me. Even if the teacher did refer to the book, I could sometimes find a copy in the library, or borrow a few times from a classmate. Some books simply had to be bought. I bought those, in used condition, of course.

I tried to date. Here, too, I was lame. I liked a girl from Soda Springs, Idaho.

At the end of my freshman year, I took my brother-in-law's seat cover territory as a salesman. He lent me his pickup and camper and I pointed it toward South Dakota and Wyoming. I'm afraid I was pretty lame at this profession, too. The night before I met Melani, I backed the camper into the rain gutter and eave of a motel, marring them both, and the camper. My results as a salesman aside, I got a wife, and Steven was able to stay in Mendon happily haying and combining. He paid me enough to pay my own tuition in the fall.

I convinced Melani to come to Bozeman to see if we could work toward marriage. It was my most profitable sale of the summer. Her first residence was Ralph and Vanona's basement on Kagy Blvd. She subsisted on peanut butter sandwiches and apples from a box of dead-falls Olsens kept by the stairs. She was trying to get an Amway business off the ground, Whoo-ee! I took her a few groceries, finding out what it was like to feed another person, as a prelude to duties as a husband. She was wasting away. Finally she started driving school bus. In September, I sat her down beneath the green ash tree to the west of Leon Johnson Hall and asked for her hand in marriage. She agreed readily, probably hoping for more regular groceries. We planned a December 21st wedding.

Melani and I moved to Judge Lessley's guest cabin where my cousin Scott and I had been rooming. The cabin's floor space was less than four hundred feet and it had seven-foot ceilings. It was built of logs. In May, Mrs. Cotterell told us her friends, the Degnans, would allow us to live rent-free in the log mansion on Durston. It had walk-in coolers, a California King waterbed, a baby grand piano, a greenhouse and a Bobcat loader which Dr. Degnan said I could use in my new landscaping business. My father also lent me his Massey-Ferguson tractor to use in the business. Degnans even paid the utilities, knowing that they would cost more than we could afford. After a few months there, Mrs. Lessley rented us a home on North Black for a few months. We decided we liked their guest cabin on West Babcock better so we moved back there in the fall. We were always looking for a place with lots of windows and light, not “icky”, quiet and serene. We found that place 33 years later.

Finances were especially tight this fall. Melani was pregnant. Melani had quit driving in March or April, that spring. I was sole breadwinner. Over the summer I had made grocery money, and little more, landscaping. Somehow I made tuition again. My freshman and sophomore years I received Pell grants or whatever they were called. They were about $1,000 per school year. I twice got Campbell Family Foundation scholarships of $750, and once, at Dr. Skogley's encouragement, successfully applied for a National Federation of State Garden Clubs Scholarship, one of twelve given in the nation. That was huge!

The fall of 1977 we were desperately poor. The only time things were worse was in 1985 when were were not only desperately poor but also mired in debt; two 14% mortgages, and multiple businesses that were losing money every month.

In 1977 I was driving a new bus route, this time to the mouth of the Gallatin Canyon. It was a drowsy drive home down US Highway 191, tired as I was from arising at 5:00, pedaling my ten-speed which really only had one speed, several miles to the bus barn on North Church, pedaling uphill to MSU, back to the bus barn, and then home. Weather did not alter the routine. I rode in ice and snow, dark and daylight. I used Melani's orange down parka and down mittens.

We could not afford gas, insurance or licensing for the Chrysler New Yorker Melani had brought into the marriage. So we disconnected the battery cables and let it sit for three winter months. Melani, pregnant, carried laundry to a coin-operated laundromat. We called friends for rides to Institute and church meetings.

Food was sparse. One month we had only $5.00 in the budget for food. We used food storage. We cooked wheat muffins, both the pan and cup varieties, boiled wheat kernels and cracked wheat, and baked bread which we enjoyed with margarine and honey. Margarine was what we bought with the $5.00. Mom and Dad brought over a gallon of milk every few days, and a couple packages of hamburger that month. The grain grinder they gave us as a wedding gift got a workout. Dad and Mom also brought some canned peaches. I took honey sandwiches and carrot sticks in my backpack for lunches. In four years of college, I don't think I ever bought a meal in the Student Union Building.

A couple of months before Abe was born in March of 1978, Lessleys insisted that we honor the stipulation they had set at first: no children. We moved to Gopher Street, into a recycled Army dwelling in MSU's Married Student Housing. It was barely a house, but if you kept it swept, it did not feel like a ghetto. The front step was two wooden planks. We placed a 5-gallon food storage bucket with a piece of plywood on it beside the bed and considered it a night stand. ( A bad dream seized me one night. I ripped the board and lid off, pawed around in the whey powder, trying to “repair a sprinkler head”.)

The walls had cracks which allowed snow to drift inside when the angle of the wind was precise. The living room floor also had cracks. These were handy when sweeping; you could simply directed the shards to the cracks and, voila!, no dust pan needed! Rent was $75.00 per month, utilities included. I scavenged discarded house windows to prop in front, a crude greenhouse, to grow some food, but nothing became of this scheme.

I painted plywood signs with my Burnett Landscaping logo and bolted them to the bed of my light blue Chevrolet pickup. I had bought it from Brad W. for $1,500. That truck served well until I ran it out of oil near Missoula a few years later. Prior to the snazzy blue Chevy, I paid just a couple hundred bucks for a decrepit Ford flatbed. I bought a few dozen railroad ties from a salvage yard south of Livingston. Hauling them over the Bozeman Hill pass, I wondered if the front wheels would maintain road contact. Suspension and steering were tentative.

The summer of 1978, I landscaped, keeping Melani and Abe fed and the health insurance paid. People who sniff that it is too hard for the poor to buy basic health insurance ignore the people like us who did and do. There was nothing to spare. Our monthly budget was about $300. Our neighbor, Madeline, and her son Yarrow, had it even worse than we did. We shared food with her sometimes. She did not take government food. Her independence inspired me to refuse a Pell grant for $1,000. The financial aid office kept calling, asking that I pick it up. I finally told them I didn't want it though we were barely surviving. Some of our friends were taking WIC, (Women, Infants, and Children), allowing them to buy more milk and cheese and fruit juices than we could. I felt good not taking that. We didn't need fruit juice.

In the fall I enrolled again. It never occurred to us that I should quit college to get ahead on finances.

I enjoyed self-employment. It obviously paid more than wages, and the excitement and challenge were stimulating, not to mention the thrill of constant brushes with death by starvation and the threat of bankruptcy. Mom and Dad had quit working for Alco Mfg., as managers of the seat cover shop at 13 South Church. Alco, rather than hire replacements, closed the shop. In their hasty move-out, they had forgotten to disconnect the telephone service. I needed a business that would continue in the winter, when landscaping stalled. I did some figuring, a rudimentary business plan, if you want to use that term with a great deal of liberty. I peered in the windows. I kept hearing the phone ring. I thought, “There is $39.95 calling and no one is here to take the money!” In November of 1978, I became an entrepreneur with a brick-and-mortar store, holding regular hours. Business hours conflicted with college. I missed a percentage of my classes. I soon hired a person to mind the store when I had to be in classes. I only went to the ones considered absolutely essential, choosing in the same way I made textbook decisions. Of the 58 hours the store was open weekly, I was present 35-40. The money I was earning kept Melani and Abe from gnawing hunger, but slender nonetheless. We paid our Blue Cross premium monthly.

We moved to a basement apartment, the Sherwood Apartments on College Avenue for a few weeks. We moved to George and Christy's cabin in Bear Canyon for about a week. Moths entered the cabin in droves. Then we bought a trailer in Star Mobile Home Court in Belgrade.

In the fall of 1979 I entered upon my senior year of studies. Sometime earlier I had taken in my brother-in-law and two other investors and opened a store in Billings. I hired a doozie as a manager, Clay, and the store limped. I sent Beth over from Bozeman to be the manager/sole employee. It was soon obvious that the Billings operation was going to exceed Bozeman for profitability. The next spring, thinking I was done with college and ready to graduate, we moved, trailer and all, to Billings, leaving the Bozeman shop in the care of timid Mike.

The MSU Registrar disqualified Music Theory 101, which I had worked hard to challenge with Dr. Campbell, because I had taken Composition 315, for which 101 was a prerequisite, before challenging. I should have contested the decision. But I didn't. Instead, I contacted the University of Utah and enrolled in a correspondence course in journalism to bring my credit total up to the minimum. I put in 55-70 hour weeks at the shop, Enduro Seat Covers, at 15th and Central.

I rode a bicycle to and from work, to save money. Jessica was born in May of 1980. Melani wondered why I didn't have time to bring Abe and visit her and the baby at St. Vincent's more than once. I was what you call “overwhelmed”. I finished the journalism course. My diploma is dated 1982.

That, and the blessings of heaven, is how we got through college with one income, two kids, 10 percent tithing, and zero debt.

One incident from the early years bears relating before I conclude this account. Sometime after “the winter with no car”, I met a former bus driver on campus. What was he doing? I asked. He had loaded lift chairs part-time at Bridger Bowl. Now he was taking a couple of classes and skiing at resorts around the West with friends, he said. That's a good life, I thought. How was he affording it?

“Unemployment”, he said. He said he figured it was his money, that he had earned it and put it in the system or the fund. I'm sure my face blackened. It was NOT his money. It was mine. By then, I had learned the harsh realities of state and federal unemployment and how it transfers money from workers to loafers, like him. I had employed Clark in landscaping and Tim in seat covers and paid taxes to the Unemployment Division. It wasn't the ski bum's money. It was mine, paid when my family ate boiled wheat. I wanted to impress that piece of intelligence indelibly upon his consciousness, but said nothing.

But revenge was sweeter than that would have been. I saw him fifteen years later. He had a pot belly. Straggly gray hair fell around a mostly bald head. He was grizzled. No loving wife, no lively, charming children. He rented a crummy apartment with other, much younger, snow worshipers. Though I as an earner had been forced to carry his weight, I had my family and dignity, and he had the lonely fruits of his choices.

Last Updated: 3-15-2008 11:51 AM


Paid for by: Tom Burnett, Republican Candidate for the Montana State Legislature
Treasurer, 4143 Rain Roper Drive, Bozeman, MT 59715