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Updated: February 18, 2020 @ 1:02 pm
Klein Gilhousen, center, with retired department head Jim Peterson, right, and Karen Gilhousen in conversation during a reception for incoming professor Richard Wolff on Feb. 20, 2003, in the Leigh Lounge at Montana State University.
As part of his support for the Bozeman Symphony Orchestra, Klein Gilhousen once won an auction to guest-conduct a winter performance of "Sleigh Ride" in front of a crowd of expectant onlookers.
Gilhousen was a proficient musician, a student of the trumpet and guitar, but conducting was a different ballgame. Despite this, he stood and guided the orchestra, baton in hand, through the entire arrangement.
“That’s the kind of guy he was,” said Mary Peterson, executive director of Eagle Mount. “He wasn’t afraid to get up in front of an audience and embarrass himself because it’s for a good cause.”
Best known as a founder of telecommunications giant Qualcomm and inventor of CDMA communications technology in cellphones, Gilhousen died late last week at the age of 74. His family said he died from complications following a battle with lymphoma.
A native of Ohio, Gilhousen was drawn to the Big Sky state by Montana State University, in particular the school’s College of Engineering.
An “engineer’s engineer,” Gilhousen went out of his way to give talks and presentations to students in the department. In early 2001, Gilhousen and his wife Karen donated $5 million through their Gilhousen Family Foundation to create the Gilhousen Telecommunications Chair in the college's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. The donation was the university’s largest to date and the first fully endowed chair in school history.
“I was amazed that he would be so generous to little old Montana State University,” said Robert Maher, head of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, who arrived a year after the Gilhousens’ initial donation. “In the case of Klein Gilhousen, it was love. He loved this community and he loved the department. And that is really rare, to find someone who can take that personal interest and turn it into something so transformative.”
An avid pilot, skier and ham radio operator, Gilhousen and his family quickly adopted the Gallatin Valley as home after moving to Bozeman in 1991.
“A lot of people do whatever they can for their family, but Klein didn’t limit himself to family. He felt really strongly about supporting his community, because the community really took Klein and Karen in,” said Gilhousen’s sister, Patti Guptill.
In 2014, the Gilhousen Family Foundation donated $2.8 million to three dozen organizations, nonprofits and causes across Montana, according to tax documents — the majority located in the Gallatin Valley. The Gallatin Mental Health Center, the Rock Youth Center, the Bozeman Schools Foundation and the Gallatin Valley Land Trust were among those supported by the foundation.
Gilhousen also served on the board of directors for the Museum of the Rockies and was a member of the External Advisory Council for MSU’s College of Engineering.
“It would be hard to talk to someone in town who hasn’t been affected by him,” said Peterson, citing her organization’s Adventure Days summer program as an example of the effect of the Gilhousen family’s support.
“Even as they set up their foundation and formalized their giving, they always made sure it tied into this place. They loved this community, and still do,” she added.
Much of Gilhousen’s philanthropic work and life was informed by his Christian faith. Near the end of his life, he devoted his time to forming the Yellowstone Theological Institute, a community-focused divinity school under construction on South 19th Avenue where he was a founder and supporter.
“Klein’s faith was so deeply rooted, it drove his philanthropy, it even drove how he understood his intellectual endeavors as an engineer,” said YTI President Jay Smith. “He really saw his life as an opportunity to help others.”
“(Klein was) motivated through Christian practice...trying to help your fellow man or woman through the difficulties that we have,” Guptill added.
To a person, those who knew Gilhousen described him as a unique, selfless human, committed to his community and the people around him.
“I could go on and on about Klein Gilhousen,” said Maher. “Even though he had had this huge success in his business, he was someone you could walk up to and talk to about ham radio and interests in music or flying. He was a unique person and someone who we are going to miss.”
"Klein was the finest man I've never known and it was an honor to be his wife," his wife Karen said.
“Everyone should have a Klein Gilhousen in their life. He was kind, he was insightful, he was generous. You could approach him and he would say ‘Hi’ and give you five minutes,” added Smith. “I’m a better person, a much better person, because of Klein. He will never be forgotten.”
Kendall can be reached at email@example.com. Kendall is on Twitter at @lewdak
Lewis Kendall covers business and the economy for the Chronicle.
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