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Montana politics, elections and legislative news.

John Engen, longtime mayor of Missoula, dies at 57

Missoula’s longest serving mayor died Monday. John Engen was elected in 2005 and served from 2006 until his death. According to the Montana Historical Society, that likely makes him one of Montana’s longest-serving mayors.

Missoula Mayor John Engen.
City of Missoula
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Five months ago Engen announced he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died at the age of 57.

"At the end of my life, if I can look back, I will have taken some pride in the shiny and the cool and the new, but I will care more about the folks who suffered less, or not at all, because we were able to work together.”

That was John Engen speaking with MTPR’s "Can Do" podcast in early 2020 about his administration’s effort and obligation to take a collaborative approach to address the local homeless population.

Montana’s Democratic U.S. Senator Jon Tester was a friend of Engen’s for over two decades. He remembers Engen’s razor-sharp wit and ability to put people at ease.

“He brought a level of, ‘Let’s get along, let’s get together, let’s get things done’. He was not mayor of Missoula to make John Engen look like a better person. He was mayor of Missoula to make Missoula a better place to live."

Tester respected how Engen and his team handled his public struggle with alcoholism and his entry into rehab.

“And by the way, when I had folks in my family who were having challenges, I called up John and he visited — quite frankly with my son — and put things in a much better place for him. John was not judgmental.”

Engen often listed as one of his administration’s greatest accomplishments the years-long battle to secure ownership of Missoula’s water system. He also backed two open space bonds, believing preservation of local lands for recreation and wellbeing was crucially important for the community.

Engen acknowledged that Missoula was changing as more people moved in. He said as Missoula grows it’s going to feel tighter and busier and sacrifices are inevitable, but he said he tried to use policies to help build it with the community in mind.

Missoula City Council Chair Gwen Jones is now the city’s acting mayor.

"He also kept a keen eye on infrastructure and development and growth with an eye towards the future so that we went from a town into a functioning, vibrant city that welcomes people here and has created a good foundation for the future.”

Jones acknowledges Engen’s death Monday came as an emotional blow to city staff, adding the council is fully prepared to make a smooth transition to new leadership.

The application process for those interested in becoming Missoula’s next mayor opens this week. City councilors will then nominate applicants for in-person interviews from that pool. The full council is expected to vote on those nominees by September 12.

Senator Jon Tester meanwhile says plenty of people – himself included — tried to convince John Engen to run for statewide office, but says they could never convince him to leave Missoula.

"He said, ‘You know what, I’m a Missoula guy. I want to stay in Missoula and I want to make Missoula all it can be.’ And that’s where he focused.”

Montana Republican Governor Greg Gianforte Monday said in a statement on Engen’s death, “With a Treasure State-sized heart for his hometown, Mayor Engen served his community for decades. The city of Missoula and the state today lost a giant. We're praying for his loved ones and the people he served”

Details of a public memorial service for Missoula Mayor John Engen will be announced in the next few days.

Edward O'Brien is Montana Public Radio's Associate News Director.