Montana State University celebrated Monday the late Montana writer Ivan Doig and the acquisition of his papers by the university’s library special collections.

Doig, called “the dean of Western writers” by the Seattle Times, died of cancer last year at age 75, having written 13 fiction and three nonfiction books that captured life in his native Montana and the American West.

In a panel discussion Monday attended by about 300 MSU community members, Carol Muller Doig talked about why she chose to send her late husband’s extensive collection of letters, notes, photos and diaries to MSU, despite other offers.

Stanford University had many archive donations and Doig’s papers would have had to wait in line, she said. The University of Washington didn’t promise to put the entire collection online.

But MSU did. The Bozeman campus also sent 20 letters of support, including one from the university president, and promised a variety of events, such as a symposium next fall titled “Doig Country – Imagining Montana and the West.”

“I said, ‘They will not let me put it anywhere else,’” Carol Doig said with a laugh. Her husband had also received an honorary doctorate from MSU in 1984, five years after publishing his first memoir, “This House of Sky,” a finalist for the National Book Award.

MSU President Waded Cruzado called the selection of the campus “a match made in Big Sky heaven.”

Cruzado said when she met Ivan Doig in 2010, she felt she already knew him from his writings, his sharp but wry sense of humor and “his keen insights into the soul” of Montana.

She repeated Doig’s quote on “what an achievement a book is – a magic box simultaneously holding the presence of the author and the wonders of the world.”

MSU has already placed a digital version of thousands of Doig’s papers online (at ivandoig.montana.edu). Objects – like his manual typewriter – are kept in the Renee Library’s Special Collections.

The online collection includes thousands of photographs, some of which were shown on large screens at Monday’s event.

There were photos of the Doig homestead and log cabin, and a fading 1937 black-and-white photo of Ivan and his brother with horses and rifles. There was a photo of Doig, the bearded writer, smiling with Norman Maclean, author of “A River Runs Through It.” Writers like her husband, Maclean and Jim Welch got along well and respected each other, Carol Doig said, adding there was “no backbiting.”

Recordings of Doig’s voice are also part of the online collection. MSU is pairing some of his words with its audio archive of the sounds of Montana. And MSU seniors are already starting to use the Doig collection in their capstone classes.

Born in White Sulphur Springs, Doig was the son of a ranch cook and a ranch hand. His mother died when he was 6. Doig graduated from Valier High School in a class of 21 students. He went on to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and later a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Washington.

Doig is also the author of “English Creek” and “Dancing at the Rascal Fair.” “Heart Earth” was recently reissued as a companion to “This House of Sky.”

“He relished telling about ordinary people’s lives,” Carol Doig said. “They weren’t ordinary; they were special.”

Rick Bass, Western writer in residence at MSU, said that Doig, like Wallace Stegner, gave Westerners the feeling that “our voice matters,” even if they came from small places. Nowadays so many memoirs are about how life was terrible and then got worse, Bass said, adding he was grateful to Doig for his “innate joy and wonder.”

Also speaking Monday were MSU Library Dean Kenning Arlitsch; Letters and Science College Dean Nicol Rae; Marcella Sherfy Walter, a research historian who assisted Doig; Betty Mayfield, a Seattle librarian asked by Doig to put his papers together for sale; and Mary Murphy, MSU history professor.

“I’m delighted with the progress” MSU has already made with the collection, Carol Doig said. She warned there were more papers to come.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at 406-582-2633 or gails@dailychronicle.com.

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