Mike McFaul recalls his parents were nervous when they moved from Butte that their son might not fit in at his new school, Bozeman Senior High.
The school ended up having a profound impact on his life, opening doors of opportunity that led McFaul to Stanford University and to the White House.
Today he's a top advisor on Russia to President Barack Obama, participates in policy debates in the Oval Office and flies with the president to international negotiations.
"Without question, the two years I spent at Bozeman High were absolutely critical in my life," said McFaul, 46. "Without that, the rest wouldn't happen."
McFaul was one of four Bozeman High alumni and one honorary alum honored Thursday as part of the celebration of the high school's reconstruction.
Their names are the first five to be inscribed in the new Hall of Honor wall display inside the school entry, created to recognize Bozeman High graduates and inspire today's students.
The other honorees are Mark Winchester, class of 1965, a top heart specialist at the Duke Medical Center, for lifetime achievement; young alum Brian Screnar, class of 1993, deputy finance director for the Obama campaign and now chief of staff to the U.S. Interior Department deputy secretary; Gary Tschache, class of 1965, a Bozeman store owner known for his humanitarian work in the community; and nursery owner Jerry Cashman, named an honorary alum, who served 12 years on the Bozeman School Board and continues to contribute to the schools.
McFaul wasn't thinking about future honors the day he signed up for a debate class at Bozeman Senior High. He was a junior, just transferred from Butte, and a neighbor assured him debate was a "mic" - a super-easy, Mickey Mouse class.
But debate teacher Bob Adams turned out to be so fantastic, McFaul got hooked and joined the debate team. He spent hours researching the topic of the year -- How to improve U.S. trade - and focused on trade with the Soviet Union.
In English teacher Mike Durney's class, McFaul learned to read novels and think about them seriously for the first time. He learned to improve his own "atrocious" writing.
"Now I write for a living," McFaul said, having written dozens of books, articles and policy papers.
The skills he learned in debate, he said, "making arguments, putting together evidence," are the same things that "as a professor at Stanford and as a policymaker in Washington, I do every day."
People at Bozeman High encouraged him to apply to Stanford ("I didn't know where Stanford was when I was in Butte.").
After graduating from high school in 1981, McFaul attended Stanford and studied Russian. In 1983 he took his first trip abroad to the Soviet Union, in the middle of the Cold War. He became a Rhodes Scholar and earned his Ph.D. at Oxford in England, and went on to become a political science professor at Stanford. He was in Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed, and recalled the euphoria of the time.
Today McFaul is a special assistant to the president and senior director of Russian and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council.
McFaul has been an architect of Obama's policy to "reset" America's rocky relations with Russia. He worked on the treaty allowing the U.S. military to fly half its supplies and soldiers over former Soviet countries to Afghanistan, instead of trucking them over Pakistani roads plagued by bombings. He helped negotiate Russian support for UN sanctions against Iran.
McFaul has even worked toward changing the trade laws with Russia that he debated about 30 years ago in high school.
He worked "thousands of hours" on a new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, and flew with the president to Prague in April for the signing of the document. The treaty passed a key Senate committee vote on Thursday, and McFaul said his White House colleagues were "drinking champagne" to celebrate.
"Flying all over the world with (Obama), negotiating - it's been a thrill," McFaul said. "The chance of a lifetime."
Winchester, 63, said Bozeman High had a profound impact on him as well. As the football team quarterback and a basketball player, he was deeply influenced by coaches Tom LeProwse and Rodger McCormick.
"The power of somebody believing in you has been huge," Winchester said.
In high school he not only learned academic subjects, but also beliefs, values and "a solid sense of how to live your life."
Winchester also went to Stanford as an undergraduate. He said he at first worried that he couldn't keep up with students from elite private schools. Afraid he'd end up working construction all his life if he didn't succeed, he was motivated by "poverty and fear," he said. "I basically out-worked people."
After graduating first in his class at the University of California San Francisco medical school, Winchester studied at Harvard, and returned to Stanford to specialize in cardiology. At the time, Dr. Norm Shumway was pioneering heart transplants and the new technique of angioplasty was being developed.
Winchester brought angioplasty to the Sacramento area and performed heart transplants there for many years. Now he is at the Duke University Medical Center, directing a clinic that helps patients with advanced heart failure.
"I felt humbled, grateful and happy," to get the Bozeman High alumni honor, Winchester said. "It's probably the greatest honor I'll take with me."
Gail Schontzler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 582-2633.