Chronicle Staff Writer

Michael Malone, Montana State University president for the past nine years and the state's best-known historian, died early Tuesday at Gallatin Field airport of a heart attack, leaving the university community in shock and sorrow. He was 59.

Malone was remembered with great affection at MSU as a prolific historian, humorous story-teller, hard worker and an extremely bright scholar who never lost the common touch.

Though he had a commanding grasp of Montana's past, he never stopped looking to the future for ways to improve MSU. He presided over one of the greatest expansions in campus history, both in construction of new buildings and record-setting growth in enrollment, now 11,746 students.

"He believed passionately that Montana State University in particular, and higher education in general, could really improve the lives of the people of Montana," said a red-eyed Dave Dooley, interim provost.

"He had a strong sense of integrity - if President Malone gave you his word, that's how it was going to be," said Kira Kuntz, vice president of the Associated Students of MSU and a junior in engineering. "He had … compassion and concern for students."

"He was an outstanding teacher," said Regent Richard Roehm of Bozeman, who took a history class from Malone in 1981. "He devoted his life to educating people, which is the salvation of our democracy. He really believed that."

Shari McCoy, Malone's assistant, fought back tears. "He was my boss, but he was my friend."

Malone was driving home from the airport after a delayed Horizon flight from Washington state, which didn't get in to Bozeman until around 1 a.m., Roehm said. He was alone when he got his bags to his car, paid the parking lot attendant, drove a few yards and hit a light post.

Gallatin County Coroner Duncan MacNab said other air passengers tried to help, and the Belgrade Fire Department, Montana Highway Patrol and an ambulance crew responded. Attempts to resuscitate Malone, including a shock to the heart, failed, and he was pronounced dead at 1:15 a.m. MacNab said the cause of death was a heart attack.

Malone had been diagnosed in 1995 with cardiomyopathy, an enlarged and weakened heart, apparently brought on by a virus. He wore a medical alert bracelet with information about his condition. According to "The Merck Manual of Medical Information," about 70 percent of people with cardiomyopathy die within five years, and the prognosis worsens as the heart walls become thinner.

Malone had traveled to Spokane at the request of Washington State University officials who were courting him for the president's job, said Roehm, who talked with Malone about it at lunch Saturday, when he was in "great spirits."

The Spokane Spokesman-Review reported Regents Chairman Peter Goldmark said Malone had been highly recommended, but a WSU official said Malone was not willing to become a candidate for the Pullman job, having expressed a deep commitment to MSU.

Malone was making $127,509 at MSU, while the job at WSU, where he earned his doctorate, pays $160,000 plus deferred compensation and other benefits that bring it up to $250,000, according to the WSU news office.

Dooley and MSU's three vice presidents held a press conference Tuesday morning. Dooley said they had spoken with Commissioner of Higher Education Richard Crofts, and for now the four will administer MSU. Crofts and the Board of Regents will consult with people on campus and assess options for naming an interim president and setting up a search for a permanent president. That is likely to take many months. Dooley, as interim provost, will coordinate the four-some.

Faculty, employee union and student leaders said they hadn't always agreed with Malone, but he gave them a fair hearing and tried to run the university in a democratic rather than dictatorial way, seeking broad consensus on decisions.

In 1992, when the clerks and other classified employees went on strike seeking higher pay from the Legislature, Malone was very supportive, recalled Vicki Miller, president of the 600-member MSU chapter of the Montana Public Employees Association.

"He actually went around to the strike lines and offered coffee and cocoa," Miller said. Malone also went to bat for classified employee raises earlier this year and helped break an impasse, she said. "It's very sad up here right now. Mike was a good man."

Malone would sometimes visit and joke with the clerical staff, said Registrar Chuck Nelson. "That is unusual" among the 10 presidents he'd worked for at other colleges, Nelson said. "Everybody knew him as Mike. … He was pretty down to earth."

Damon Hunter, an MSU custodian, said he met Malone at Special Olympics and felt distressed by the death. "I think he's a really good person."

John Amend, chemistry professor and Faculty Council chair, said Malone's administration was marked by openness and honesty.

"He was an excellent president and a valued friend," said Amend, who'd known Malone almost 30 years. "This has hit a lot of people up here pretty hard.

"He made a real effort to include faculty and all persons in decisions and planning the future of the university."

Peter Kommers, last year's faculty chair, said he hadn't always agreed with Malone on priorities, but "I found Mike to be very straightforward and well-reasoned and very dedicated to Montana State University and its people. I'm very saddened by his passing."

Malone had led MSU through a period of major construction and modernization that changed the face of the campus. There was construction of the $22 million engineering building, the $12 million Ag Bioscience Building, and a $1 million facelift to make the central campus mall more attractive and restore the cupola to the top of Montana Hall. He also helped win $7.5 million from the 1999 Legislature to renovate the Renne Library.

MSU sports got a boost with the $10 million upgrade of the football stadium and $13.5 million repair of the fieldhouse. "None of the athletics renovations would have happened without Mike Malone," said Bruce Parker, associate athletics director.

At the same time, students' tuition has doubled in this decade. And some professors have grumbled about all the money spent on new buildings and research centers at MSU, while they've been unable to find a few dollars to fix broken chairs, copiers, slide projectors and classroom thermostats.

Malone tried to respond to such concerns by restoring some budget cuts and creating a new budget committee, that included faculty and other campus groups, to make recommendations about priorities.

Malone believed strongly that both research and teaching were crucial to MSU and that they could work together, said Mike McCoy, vice president for research. He said Malone handled problems with "grace and charm."

As former agriculture dean, McCoy said he spent hours driving all over the state with Malone to little towns like Ekalaka and Baker. "He'd have me in stitches," telling stories, he said, "and you'd know a lot more about Montana when you were done."

Despite his heart condition, Malone had great energy and kept writing history books while running the Bozeman campus and the affiliated MSU campuses in Billings, Havre and Great Falls.

"He could use 10 minutes better than anybody I ever saw," said Rolf Groseth, systems coordinator. "His role as a historian - really that's what he always thought he was."

His vast knowledge of Montana meant he could walk into any little town and tell something interesting or funny about "the heroes, the rascals," Groseth said.

That ability to tell stories and connect with people really paid off for MSU during legislative sessions. Tom Stump, vice president for finances, recalled walking through the Capitol halls and seeing virtually every person stop and talk with Malone.

Cathy Conover, MSU's chief lobbyist and information director, said lawmakers had a lot of respect for him. "They could get a straight answer from him."

Sen. John Harp, R-Kalispell, recalled the sparkle in Malone's eyes, as well as his "level-headed common sense."

"He could get with the premiere of England on the one hand and get with miners of Butte just as well," said Rep. Joe Quilici, D-Butte. He said he became close friends with Malone, who cared not only about the university system but also about trying to boost the state's economy.

Malone wrote or co-wrote nine books, including what has become the standard text on state history, "Montana: A History of Two Centuries," in 1976 and a companion update in 1996. He had just edited a beautifully photographed coffee-table book, "Montana Century," which Falcon Press said has sold 13,000 copies since October and is already in its third printing. He wrote "The Battle for Butte" and co-wrote "The American West: A Twentieth Century History." At the time of his death, he was working on a book on the American West for Yale University Press.

Jeff Safford, a retired MSU historian, said Malone's writing output, while running MSU, was "absolutely extraordinary."

Malone's reputation was based largely on his ability to synthesize previous interpretations of history with his own original research, and make them "fresh and readable," Safford said.

"He was always interested in power politics - who makes the decisions," Safford said. "His work ethic was beyond imagination. Nobody could pack more into a work day than Mike Malone."

Respect for his writings won him recognition in the Great Falls Tribune and Missoulian as one of the 100 most influential Montanans of the century. It also led to interviews with the Public Television series on the history of the Irish in America and with the History Channel.

Though he's so clearly identified with Montana, Malone was born in 1940 in Washington. The son of a farm implement dealer in Pomeroy, he started college heading to become a lawyer. But while a sophomore at Gonzaga University, he changed his major to history.

"I just liked the subject," Malone said in an interview last August. "I thought it would be fun to make a career of doing for others what (historians) were doing for me."

He graduated with high honors, earned a Ph.D. in 1966, and worked one year at Texas A&M University. He came to MSU in 1967 as an assistant history professor and worked his way up to professor, department head, director of the Burton K. Wheeler Center, dean of graduate studies, and interim vice president for academic affairs. In 1991, he was named MSU's 10th president.

"He never outgrew his small-town roots, and he was proud of growing up and being part of rural America," Dooley said. "We was a wonderful president to work with and a good friend."

Dooley recalled meeting with a group that took the U.S. undersecretary of commerce to the Winchester Bar in Livingston. "We drank beer and played darts - Mike kept the entire group entertained, with stories of Montana, people of the area, the history of Livingston."

Allen Yarnell, vice president for student affairs, worked with Malone on some of his most controversial decisions, including a refusal to allow tobacco samples to be distributed at the fieldhouse, which cost MSU the College National Finals Rodeo, and the recent firing of the women's basketball coach. Malone never jumped to decisions but always held lots of meetings to build consensus, Yarnell said.

"Most of all, Mike Malone was a good guy," Yarnell said. "Bosses come and go, but friends are irreplaceable. … He'll be tremendously missed."

Marilyn Wessel, dean and director of the Museum of the Rockies, read a comment from Malone's widow, Kathy: "I hope people will take the time to read the history that Michael has written because he truly loved this state with all its treasures."

Malone is survived by two children and three step-children.

Memorial services are being planned by the family. A memorial for the MSU community will be held some time in the future, Dooley said.