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Engen leaves legacy of clean water and caring

Posted at 7:48 PM, Aug 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-16 16:01:18-04

MISSOULA - There were many facets to John Engen, a local Missoula boy who would eventually give two decades of service to the city he loved, first as a city councilman and then as the city's longest serving mayor.

I covered Engen's triumphs, and trials, from his first term to his last and the quality I observed the most was the deep love he had for his home town.

While John Engen's life before public service is a story by itself, it's life after his first election in 2005 that made headlines. Following that first victory, Engen would go on to be returned to the mayor's chair five different times, handily winning his last re-election campaign in November.
His service was highlighted by many key dates, including the multi-year Mountain Water lawsuit, launched in 2013 and backing the redevelopment of the old Missoula Mercantile site in 2016.

"The reason we're in litigation is to ensure that we have a seat at the table so that we are the most attractive buyer," Engen said when the city decided to pursue litigation to take over the aging water system.

Mountain Water's transition to publically-owned Missoula Water is his largest legacy. A wrestling match met with determination that a public water system was best.

"What we believe is solid evidence the City of Missoula is the more necessary owner of the system," Engen told me after the Montana Supreme Court came to Missoula to hear the case.

It would take four years to cut a check for $83 million.

"I am a combination of excited and exhausted," Engen admitted after the final courtroom hearing in 2017. "And really ready to get on with the business of running this water company forever."

Another curve hit when a best seller put Missoula in the cross hairs of the Department of Justice, leading to reforms in handling sexual assault. Engen told the City Club after the settlement it was an attempt to be more considerate of victims, while still finding justice.

"That these victims are treated with respect, dignity and the kindness and compassion that they deserve."

There's no time to relate all his jokes that would bounce off his funny bone. He publicly shared his health struggles, even when it meant criticism. A ribbon cutting showed progress, especially if it helped the disadvantaged, such as when the Poverello Center opened in December 2014.

"Well, this has a ripple effect. I mean, the idea that we are a community that takes care of folks who are extraordinarily vulnerable, and in some cases folks who are hard to love. They find love here. And again, that's a pretty remarkable testament. So if we could do that in this place, there's not much we can't do."

But it was demolition that touched this local boy's heart when a developer removed the old Missoula Merc for a new hotel. Engen recalled growing up with the store, but saying it was time for Missoula to move on.

"Some days I would turn back the clock and I'd eat that piece of candy all over again as a little boy with my mother. Or hold my dad's hand while waiting in line to talk to Santa Claus about my desires. Or be the young married man buying furnishings for his first home. And if I had my druthers we'd figure out a way to return an old, cobbled together center of commerce to its former rustic glory. But after 6-years of folks kicking tires and dashing hopes, the practical matter is that the perfect is the enemy of the good."

Not every plan jelled. But even with the turmoil during the past two years of the pandemic, Engen remained optimistic, and challenged.

"We're going to see more, not less, in terms of interest and development and folks who want to be a part of Missoula," Engen predicted in September 2020.

A future left to others to envision with his passing.