At 106 years-old Emma Lommasson is the University of Montana’s oldest living graduate. When Lommasson woke up Thursday morning, she could boast of having met all but five of UM’s presidents. By Thursday afternoon, with the help of some loyal friends, that list whittled down to four when President Seth Bodnar walked in her senior living center to surprise her.
"Hello! How are you Ms. Lommasson? It’s so great to see you. It’s an honor to meet you," Bodnar says.
"It is not an honor to meet me, it’s an honor for me to meet you," Lommasson replies. "I’m just another UM grad."
Bodnar was named UM’s 19th president last fall. He started the job in early January and had not yet had a chance to meet Ms. Lommasson. Bodnar took advantage of the university’s 125th birthday to rectify that. He came bearing UM-branded gifts for the notoriously sweet-toothed Lommasson, including some University of Montana chocolate and a blanket.
"Now listen sweetheart, you don’t need to come and give me gifts," Lommasson tells Bodnar. "The biggest gift of all that I’ve had was being able to work at this institution [UM] as long as I did.
"It’s the greatest gift anyone could be given," she says.
Lommasson enrolled at UM in 1929 and four years later graduated with a math degree. That was only the beginning of her long and celebrated history on the Missoula campus. Lommasson taught, advised and worked in various capacities at UM for almost 60 years. Today she’s a living encyclopedia of UM history.
"Emma, we were wondering, who was the registrar before Wayne Woolston," someone asks.
"Before Wayne Woolston? Oh! Well, J.B. Speer. Who could forget J.B. Speer," Lommasson said.
"Well, we all did," says someone in the crowd.
“Yes. Short, little man – he didn’t do any harm," Lommasson says to laughter.
Lommasson says she’s thrilled that 38-year-old Seth Bodnar is now leading the University of Montana.
Edward O'Brien: By my math you were 68-years-old when President Bodnar was born. Does his youth concern you?
“No," Lommasson says. "I love to see these young people get up there and get those positions. They have young minds; very active minds."
In a quieter moment later that morning, Lommasson leaned close to Bodnar and said, "You’re going to have a good time … a hard time, maybe."
Bodnar and the university do have some difficult decisions ahead. As Montana Public Radio has reported, the school must find $10 million in spending cuts and revenue increases to bring its budget into balance by 2022. Those decisions could well impact campus careers and the university’s course offerings. But Bodnar says no decisions have yet been made.
The president adds that his meeting with Emma Lommasson wasn’t an attempt to burnish his reputation in advance of making those difficult choices.
“No, this is paying a visit to literally a legend of the university, somebody who we honor and care deeply about," Bodnar says. "Her perspective and her wisdom is incredibly valuable and important to me."
Bill Johnston takes Bodnar at his word. Johnston’s history at UM spans four decades. He studied there, lobbied for it at the Legislature and in 2016 retired as President of the Alumni Association.
"I think the key is communication and sincerity and transparency," Johnston says.
Qualities that he thinks Bodnar possesses in spades.
Johnston’s witnessed budgetary crises come and go at UM over the decades, including one in the early '90s that almost scuttled the school’s now-respected pharmacy program.
Johnston thinks UM’s challenge now is unique in that there are several key, unfilled administrative positions in the midst of the school’s looming enrollment and budget problems. But he’s confident.
"They will pull through," Johnston says. "They will find the direction. They will solve the problems, and I think the university will be a stronger institution for it."
UM’s 106-year-old grande dame, Emma Lommasson, is optimistic too. While she declined to publicly offer Bodnar her advice, she did give him her unconditional support.
“He has my blessings totally, totally, 110-percent – and there’s no 110-percent. I’m a math major."