Chet Huntley

Chet Huntley, third from left, visits with dignitaries in this file photo.

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In 1970, when anchorman Chet Huntley prepared to go off the air and move back to Montana, Life Magazine went to the New York studio where the Huntley-Brinkley news report was filmed.

For 14 years, Huntley had delivered the news in a solemn baritone for NBC, telling the world about the assassinations of JFK and MLK, nuclear standoffs and the war in Vietnam. The program had won a number of Emmys and Peabody Awards, and had been the top-rated news program in the country until Walter Cronkite knocked it off its perch in the mid-1960s.

But now Huntley was leaving the airwaves, going back to Montana in hopes of starting a mountain ski and golf community in the Madison Mountains called Big Sky.

At the studio, the writer described a man still in touch with his rural past. Huntley's outfit was made up of baggy gray trousers, a dress shirt with a frayed collar and an "inexpertly knotted tie."

When Vice President Spiro Angew cast the media off as "Eastern establishment effete intellectuals," Huntley growled that he had had "more cow manure on my boots than he ever thought of."

And now he was going back to his home state.

His plans were controversial: a $15 million resort in the middle of what was the undisturbed west fork of the Gallatin River.

But Huntley was convinced it would be a good thing for Montana. And, he told the Life reporter, Montana would be good for him.

"I'm not running from things," he said. "I'm running away to think. Maybe where there is clarity of air, there is clarity of thought."

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Chester Huntley was born in Cardwell to a Northern Pacific telegraph operator who would move the family around the state, first to ranch near Saco then to an array of railroad outposts.

The Montana of Huntley's childhood had reminisces of the frontier, with brawling saloons, Indians on horseback and bank heists.

While living in Whitehall and working at the local bank, he discovered a hole someone was trying to drill through the roof of the vault. Amazingly, when he told the Boulder County Sherriff about it, the lawman put Huntley and a friend on stakeout to see if the would-be-robber returned to continue his work. While the boys were supposed to get the sheriff at the hotel if they saw the man, they wound up holding him at gunpoint until authorities arrived.

"Both Bob and I were given rather stern lectures that night concerning the important distinction between heroism and plain damned foolishness," Huntley wrote in his childhood memoir, "The Generous Years."

He also got his first taste of the news business growing up in Montana, selling the Minneapolis Tribune in Big Timber and calling out the plays of the World Series as his dad got updates over the railroad's wire.

Huntley attended Montana State College in Bozeman but earned his degree from the Cornish School of Arts in Seattle in 1934 and got his first job in radio during his senior year. Over the next 20 years, he moved up in the broadcast world, first in radio and then TV.

Supposedly called "another Ed Murrow" by one TV executive, Huntley's first national broadcast was the 1956 Republican Convention, which he covered with David Brinkley.

Huntley and Brinkley were a winning combination, with a chemistry that got viewers to tune in.

Upon his retirement, one NBC executive lamented that their interaction could not be replaced.

"Johnny Carson we can replace someday — we replaced Jack Paar — and another Laugh-In will always turn up," he said. But the chemistry with Chet and David was an accident, a freak. It won't happen again."

Over 14 years, the two men co-anchored 4,500 15- and 30-minute spots. The show won seven Emmys and two Peabody Awards.

But by the late 1960s, Huntley was growing weary of the news business.

"I wanted to get these damn deadlines off my neck," Huntley said. "Jesus, six nights a week, night after night after night."

Huntley first got the idea of buying land near Lone Mountain while staying at the 360 Guest Ranch in 1968, according to writer Rick Graetz. He had been coming to the area throughout the 1960s, and started looking into land prices. But by the end of that 1968, his vision had grown. He had scrapped the humble notion of simply buying retirement property and set his sights on a year-round resort.

He began in earnest raising money for the $15 million project and found backing from Chrysler Realty — a conglomeration co-funded by Chrysler Motor Corporation, Conoco Oil, Burlington Northern Railroad, Montana Power Co. and Northwest Airlines.

The fact that Huntley only had a 1 percent stake in the resort, compared to Chrysler's 55 percent, led some to think he was simply a front man for the major corporations — with one woman writing to Life Magazine calling him the "eager shill of money-hungry promoters bent on despoiling 15,000 acres of pristine Montana wilderness."

But Huntley insisted the project was for the good of the state.

"Damn it," he said in another Life article, "we can't build a fence around Montana. We're a depressed area. ... There are no jobs, and we're not going to get heavy industry. Tourism is our best hope."

Huntley barnstormed the state in a small airplane, selling the idea and real estate to skeptical Montanans. He lobbied Gov. Forrest Anderson to let him use the Big Sky moniker — the first time the state had allowed a corporation to use the moniker that had come to epitomize the state (Huntley later had to appease author A.B. Guthrie, who coined the term Big Sky, by giving him credit).

1970, ground was moving with workers constructing lodges, condos, an 18-hole Arnold Palmer Golf Course and the ski lifts. 1973, the ski lifts were ready to go.

To celebrate the completion of the project, a grand opening was scheduled for March 1974.

But after all his work, he would not get to join in the celebration.

Three days before the event, Huntley, a smoker, died of lung cancer.

Today at Big Sky, the Huntley Lodge and Chet's Bar pay homage to the man who was able to imagine Big Sky when the area was still just ranchland below the towering Lone Mountain — one of the thousands in Montana Huntley loved.

"Seashores, plains, deserts, sun-washed and sea-skirted islands, riverscapes — none compares with a mountain," Huntley once wrote. "A Montana mountain. Its alluvial fans sweep down toward the valley, which it invariably dominates. A mountain or mountain range is forever so magnificently and perfectly based, all in proportion, its shoulders and snow crown in dimensional harmony with the massive and gently ascending foothills on which it is set. From a distance, the timber belt is a band of color: a great blue-green sash, and soaring out of it the craggy slabs and domes, the spires and monoliths... naked... stark."

Daniel Person can be reached at dperson@dailychronicle.com or 582-2665.

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