Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Remembering Sally Mullen: Activist, Consultant, And Woman Of Faith

Sally Mullen
Courtesy Mansfield Center

She was called “The Fixer.” Missoula’s Sally Mullen was an activist, a consultant, a businesswoman, and a woman of faith. Mullen is being remembered for a lot of attributes, but perhaps her uncanny ability to fix a broken and listing organization ranks near the top of the list. She had a unique skillset and a proven track record.

Mullen died late last month of lung cancer. Missoula County’s former Chief Administrative Officer, Ann Mary Dussault describes Mullen as one of the most intuitive people she’d ever met.

"People trusted her, so they would talk to her. A lot of times when organizations are in trouble, the people in the organization need somebody they can talk to who they trust. People from the outside need someone they can talk to about the organization who they can trust and Sally was one of those magical people."

Dussault says she witnessed Mullen work that “magic” time and time again on various organizations that required anything from simple fine-tuning to a major overhaul.

The YWCA of Missoula’s Executive Director Cindy Weese says she also saw that same trait in Mullen. Weese describes Mullen as her primary mentor.

”It’s hard to measure everything that I’ve learned from Sally, but I learned how to be a really strong manager. I learned how to treat the people I worked with, the people we serve with dignity and respect.”

Weese adds one of the most important lessons Sally Mullen taught her was – as she puts it – “How to be her authentic self in her leadership.”

”That means that I try to, first of all, put myself in other people’s shoes, also not compromise my own values and beliefs  as I’m working on behalf of our organization or working with difficult, sticky issues; that I’m always bringing my best self and values to the table.”

The Executive Director of the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, Mike Halligan, met Sally Mullen years ago when he led a committee tasked with transitioning severely disabled people from institutional settings to community-based housing. It was a watershed event for both Missoula and the de-institutionalization movement. One of the project’s leaders quit a year into it and that’s when the decision was made to ask Mullen to step in. Halligan says the position required a firm, yet simultaneously, gentle hand.

"And she was just so absolutely competent that without her help, the entire process would have fallen apart, and I don’t say that lightly.”

That professionalism didn’t come without a terrific sense of humor.

"She was not only hilarious but she was irreverent, which made her even funnier. She also had an incredible wit and wisdom about her,” Dussault says.

Sally Mullen was a proud activist and progressive Democrat, and talked about her positions in a 2002 interview with the Montana Feminist History Project. She told interviewer Darla Torres that she was bothered by — but understood — why some people were rejecting the ‘feminist’ label for the “humanist” label:

"And that's always very interesting, because I think that ... it's just like the stupid Democrats these days — people rushing willy nilly not to offend anyone. You just end up with this huge blob of Pablum ... Of course I would consider myself a humanist. But really, my variety of it is certainly feminism, and I don't think that that limits me in any way ... And I like the label a lot better than many I can think of, than other names I've been called.”

Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation Executive Director Mike Halligan last saw Mullen a few weeks ago at a local coffee shop.

”She was on oxygen, she was bald and had all those things going on when you’re in the deep throes of the tragedy of cancer, yet she was buoyant and looking to the future. She talked as if she was going to be around forever and interested in all the things going on with what I was doing with the foundation and what the community can do to better itself. It was classic Sally. She was not going to let cancer change her personality or her perspective on life.”

Sally Mullen was 66. A community celebration was held in her honor in early November. She requested no other service be held in her memory.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
(406) 243-4065
Become a sustaining member for as low as $5/month
Make an annual or one-time donation to support MTPR
Pay an existing pledge or update your payment information