- Associated Press - Saturday, January 2, 2016

BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) - Tammie Brown is proud of the new dormitories at Montana State University and the fabulous views they offer students of the surrounding snow-capped mountains.

She’s proud of the staff members who make housing run smoothly for more than 5,000 students and families who live under MSU’s roof.

But mostly she’s proud that what might have been an uncaring bureaucracy actually has a big heart.

“We’ve created a family here,” Brown said, tearing up, “and it is really hard to leave.”

A Friday in December was her last day on the job as MSU’s chief housing officer. At 58, she’s retiring after 37 years working for the Montana University System, including 28 years on the Bozeman campus. She’s taking a financial incentive to retire, while her husband, Jeff Butler, MSU facilities services director, intends to keep working.

Next August will be the first time in 37 years that she’s missed the fall opening of college.

“I’ve loved it,” Brown said. “But for me it’s time to see what else is out there, what grand adventure.”

A lot has changed since 1987, when Brown was hired as MSU’s assistant housing director. Then there were 1,900 students living in residence halls.

Today there are twice as many - nearly 3,900 students in the dorms - plus more than 1,000 people living in family and graduate housing. Add on MSU’s thousands of employees, she said, and it would equal the eighth largest city in Montana.

Since the recession, as MSU enrollment kept breaking records, Brown scrambled to create “overflow” housing. She had 350 single rooms turned into doubles, and 300 family and grad student apartments turned into freshman housing. She’s proud that no undergraduates were turned away.

She eagerly shows off the newest residence, Gallatin Hall, opened in 2013, and Yellowstone Hall, under construction and set to open next fall for 400 freshmen.

Brown helped plan those new buildings. Her job also oversaw 30 full-time employees, 38 custodians and 88 RAs, students who work as resident advisers in exchange for room and board. She tells RAs that they have to sincerely want to help and get to know the 40 or so students on their floors so well, that they know when someone’s having a good day or bad day.

“We are kind of their family away from home,” she said.

When she was a 17-year-old freshman living in South Hedges, Brown said she had a terrible RA, who only talked to her when she got in trouble.

She transferred to Eastern Montana College, now MSU-Billings. There she met student RAs who had so much positive energy, she wanted to join them. That was the start of what she called her passion for giving students a good housing experience.

Most students living at MSU are young, ages 18 to 21, and for many it’s their first time leaving home. She tells parents that Residence Life is the caring “heart of MSU - I really believe that.”

Over the years, she’s seen many changes. Freshmen seem less able to cope with problems, since parents today are more likely to run interference for their kids. Social media like Facebook and texting mean that students often know of crises before the staff.

One constant has been student pranks. North Hedges students once flooded a hallway to turn it into a Slip and Slide. Every year students draw penises on the walls, pull false fire alarms, cellophane toilets or do appalling things in elevators.

Brown can laugh about pranks. But she gets tears in her eyes when she recalls May 15, 1990, the night that a 19-year-old freshman, upset that his truck was vandalized and he’d been insulted, took a shotgun and shot two students in their Langford dorm room. Brown arrived as the ambulances were pulling away.

“We worked through the night,” she said. MSU’s staff didn’t know where the shooter was, so they locked down the dorms, something never done before. There wasn’t enough blood in Bozeman’s hospital for the victims, she said, so police drove to the Butte pass to pick up a fresh supply.

As the night wore on, word came that the two victims had died. Parents were phoning to ask if their sons had been shot.

“That was the darkest day,” Brown said. The next semester, one third of Langford’s residents left.

Part of what makes MSU’s staff a family, Brown said, is that when there’s trouble, she can call people - police, counselors, administrators - and they’ll be there in minutes to help.

But she won’t miss the phone calls in the middle of the night when anything goes wrong. She won’t miss never being able to read a novel because of constant interruptions.

Retiring feels “bittersweet,” Brown said. “It’s hard to leave my MSU family. I will miss knowing every single day that what I do counts. But I truly feel it’s time.”


Information from: Bozeman Daily Chronicle, https://www.bozemandailychronicle.com

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