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Always a friend
Gillette community says farewell to its biggest champion, former mayor and U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi
  • 9 min to read

It was an expansive setting, the Gillette College Pronghorn Center, for a single coffin when the building was nearly empty at 9 a.m. Friday.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Nancy Tarver rests her hand on the casket of former U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi during Friday’s visitation at the Pronghorn Center Friday before Enzi’s funeral service.

Former U.S. senator and former Gillette mayor Michael B. Enzi was lying not in state but in a place worthy of just as much respect: a shining new arena used for basketball in a college that Enzi could have only dreamed of when he took over as mayor of a 3,000-person growing coal town in the 1970s.

Enzi’s steadfast leadership through those early boom years made Gillette’s subsequent growth possible, and without that growth, there wouldn’t likely have been a Gillette College.

News Record Photo/Ashley Detrick 

Elly Henning, a former press secretary for former U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, hugs Travis Jordan, who was a legislative assistant for former U.S. Sen. Enzi, outside of the Pronghorn Center.

Following the ceremony Friday afternoon, hundreds of people stood in the Pronghorn Center, drinking root beer floats and eating cookies — two of Enzi’s favorite traditions — and reminiscing about Enzi.

Ken Baab had the place nearly to himself just after the doors opened Friday morning for visitation. There were no lines, no mad rush to get inside. He was the first to sign the guestbook.

He’d driven from Fort Collins, Colorado, to attend the services for a man he helped run for mayor for the very first time. He wasn’t the type that would normally talk to a newspaper, but for his friend Mike, he could make an exception.

He wore a white Enzi T-shirt which must have been all over the place back when Enzi first ran for the U.S. Senate in 1996. Campaign signs bearing the same design had been unearthed from an Enzi family storage unit, and Wyoming Speaker of the House Eric Barlow and his daughter Kate, now a staffer for Sen. Cynthia Lummis but formerly on staff with Enzi, lovingly posted them along 4J Road in the morning hours before the visitation began.

Baab had been in Gillette for three years before encouraging Enzi to run for mayor. He found Enzi, two years his senior, impressive on numerous fronts.

“The fact that he’d gone to George Washington University,” Baab said, mulling over those early impressions of his friend. “He was an accountant, which was rare. He and his wife ran just a wonderful shoe store next to Tom and Nancy Murphy’s pharmacy.”

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Members of the Chamber Energizers watch as Sen. Mike Enzi's hearse is escorted by law enforcement up Gillette Avenue Friday afternoon.

It was there he bought the most expensive pair of shoes he ever purchased, he said.

“I approached him,” Baab said of how he came to be aligned with Enzi in his mayoral race. “I don’t know if he was thinking about it or not. I think he was.”

Baab thought Enzi had what it would take to steer Gillette through tough times.

“We need new leadership and we need water and we need to deal with the coal companies that are moving in,” Baab said he told Enzi. “We’d just had the oil boom.”

He was witness to the early days of what would become a lifetime of political service to his city, state and country.

His (campaign) materials were very simple,” Baab with a chuckle of fondness at the memory. “And he bragged about his family a lot.”

Though he’d moved to Fort Collins years before Enzi would run for the U.S. Senate, he remembered learning of his friend’s decision to run and how he felt about it.

“Proud,” Baab said.

He remained close with Sen. Enzi, though throughout his service to the country, he always remained the same old Mike.

The Enzis invited Baab and a friend to D.C. to stay in their townhouse on Capitol Hill.

“He always said that was his best investment,” Baab said.

Enzi gave them a private tour of the senate floor, and Diana gave them a nighttime tour of all the monuments, “which was beautiful,” Baab said.

Even then, the work ethic that had sustained Enzi for decades won out.

“He stayed in his car and read legislation on his Blackberry,” Baab said.

News Record Photo/Ashley Detrick 

State Rep. Tim Hallinan walks into the Pronghorn Center on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021 for former Gillette Mayor and Senator Mike Enzi's funeral. 

An Eagle Scout honors another

A lone Eagle Scout stood at attention and held the Scout salute until the procession that brought in Enzi’s casket, draped in the American flag, had placed it in front of a large crowd of family, friends and former colleagues in the Wyoming Legislature and U.S. Senate.

Her name was Lizabeth Kidd, and she was just the second woman in the state of Wyoming to earn the rank of Eagle Scout.

She came because the Scouts had lost a fellow Eagle: Enzi was an Eagle Scout since earning the badge in 1957. On June 15, 2016, the 100th anniversary of President Woodrow Wilson signing into law a bill that granted federal incorporation of the organization, Enzi introduced a resolution honoring the event.

She’d woken up at 5 a.m. to be able to complete some work around the ranch, make the four-hour drive and still arrive early enough to help some elderly visitors to their seats.

Immediately after the ceremony, she spoke at first with a voice strained by emotion.

“He actually made sure my dad was not deployed when I was born, and I was one of the last Scouts coined and congratulated for making Eagle,” Kidd, 19, said.

Those memories were two big reasons why Kidd made the trip.

“He actually made the trip to Wamsutter, tracked down my dad and asked, ‘How’s your wife and daughter?’” Kidd said of Enzi.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Attendees pray before Sen. Mike Enzi’s closed casket during visitation at the Pronghorn Center Friday in Gillette.

Kidd’s birth had proven difficult for her mother, who was in labor with her for days. Her father, who was in the U.S. Navy, was supposed to be deployed and risked missing the birth.

“He basically told the Navy if my dad gets on that ship, they’d better let him fly,” Kidd said. “And they said they wouldn’t, so he’s like, ‘Well then, he’s not getting on the ship!’”

More recently, Enzi had touched her life in a more personal way.

Kidd remembered raising the flag at Cheyenne Frontier Days just months after being allowed to join the Scouts in 2019.

“Enzi was literally like, ‘Stop the carriage!’ Kidd said. “He was like, ‘I want to talk to the female Scouts.’ He was one of our main supporters in females joining Scouting.”

He told the young women that he wanted to be one of the very first invites when the achieved the rank of Eagle Scout, Kidd remembered.

“We were having a lot of backlash ‘cause it was females in the Boy Scouts, and he’s like, ‘I won’t stand for it,’” Kidd said.

After she completed her Eagle Scout project, which entailed painstakingly creating an inventory of everyone buried in Lakeview Cemetery in Cheyenne and identifying all of the veterans buried there, even those who didn’t have so much as a gravestone. It was called “No Veteran Left Behind,” and it took her a total of 1,505 hours to complete.

“In his letter to me, he wrote how impressed he was with my Eagle Scout project,” Kidd said.”

She said she received congratulations from the Blue Angels, the famous U.S. Navy exhibition squadron, and even former President Donald Trump.

“The one that meant the most was Enzi,” Kidd said.

On June 12, during her Court of Honor, the ceremony in which a Scout is formally recognized for achieving the rank of Eagle Scout, she was surprised to learn that Enzi was aware of her accomplishment.

“My dad said, ‘We have a video, and this one is probably going to mean the most to her,” Kidd said. “It was Enzi. And I broke down in tears when I watched the video. At the end of the video, my dad read part of his personalized letter. It was handwritten and said, “I’m impressed. If I’m ever in Cheyenne and get a chance, I want to meet you again.’ Unfortunately that did not happen.”

“Then my dad said, ‘On behalf of Senator Enzi — ’ and he shook my hand and coined me,” Kidd said.

She reached into a shirt pocket and pulled out a shiny coin. One one side, it said “United States Senate” around a brown cowboy atop a bucking bronc on a field of yellow. On the other, it had the insignia of the Eagle Scout, around which were the words, “Once an Eagle, Always an Eagle.”

And so he was. And so she was. And forever the two were linked by the oath they both took, that on their honor, they would do their best to honor God and country and obey the Scout law, to help other people at all times and to keep themselves physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Community members wait to enter the Pronghorn Center before Sen. Mike Enzi's funeral service in Gillette Friday morning.

A teacher

Enzi was so humble and down to earth that many in Campbell County didn’t think of him as a senator from Gillette, Wyoming, but rather as a neighbor, a Camels fan or, for Darla Cotton, a Sunday School teacher.

Cotton said that when she was a teen, she was in a Sunday School class taught by Enzi and Nello Williams.

“We weren’t the easiest group to have in Sunday School, there was probably a lot more laughing than praying or studying of the Bible,” she said.

She declined to tell any humorous stories from that time, lest she embarrass one of her former classmates, but she said despite the nature of the class, “we learned a lot.”

“They were two of the best teachers to have for that topic because they fed off of each other. Nello was a little more serious, Mike was serious but that dry humor came through,” she said.

The biggest thing she learned from Enzi, she said, is that actions speak louder than words, and it’s something she tries to remember daily.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Attendees walk past an Enzi for Wyoming political sign as they approach the Pronghorn Center before former U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi’s funeral service in Gillette Friday morning.

A role model

Jim Lyon Jr. also knew the Enzi family through church. He hung out and did activities with Enzi’s kids. He first met Mike at the young age of 11.

Lyon’s family remained close with the Enzis for nearly five decades, he said, but he remembered being a young boy and looking up to Mike.

“Especially for boys growing up, they need role models that aren’t family members, people they look up to,” Lyon said. “He was a great role model for me. And he was just a man of high character, high integrity.”

His dad, Jim Lyon Sr., went on many a trip with Enzi, whether it was fishing, elk hunting, camping or canoeing on Yellowstone Lake. But one trip stood out among all the others as the weirdest.

On Enzi’s first US Senate campaign in 1996, he’d hired a band to go with them on the bus tour around the state. But for whatever reason the band didn’t show up.

Lyon remembered getting a phone call from Dick Bratton, Enzi’s state campaign chairman.

“He says, ‘We don’t have any entertainment on the bus, and we knew you played the accordion. Can you meet us at the bus?’” Lyon said. “My wife and I packed a bag, grabbed the accordion and ran to the bus.”

Lyon played the accordion for that whole bus tour. Enzi was elected to the U.S. Senate, and the rest is history.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Campbell County Commissioner Rusty Bell walks into the Pronghorn Center moments before the start of Sen. Mike Enzi's funeral service Friday morning in Gillette.

A good friend to many

Gov. Mark Gordon greeted many Wyomingites after the funeral as people shared stories of Enzi and snacked on cookies and root beer floats.

“Mike was such a good friend to so many,” Gordon said. “He was such a leader in so many ways.”

But it was the sense of loss at what was to come in Enzi’s retirement years that stuck out to Gordon.

“I was hoping — we’d talked for years about this place in the Big Horns that he’d always wanted to go fishing, and I had talked to him for years about, ‘Let’s find a time to do that,’ Gordon said. “And that won’t happen now.”

News Record Photo/Ashley Detrick 

Frank Stevens waits to go into former Mayor and Senator Mike Enzi's funeral on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021 at the Pronghorn Center in Gillette. 

Living in the moment

Former city attorney Charlie Anderson was fresh out of law school when he started working for the city of Gillette as an intern. And that’s where he met Enzi, who was the mayor then.

“I owe it all to him,” Anderson said.

The two worked together for years. Enzi was always focused on the outcome and getting things done. He didn’t want to hear that things couldn’t be done, Anderson said.

“He always said to me, ‘OK, maybe the steps aren’t right. But can you get me to where I want to go?’” Anderson said.

Among the numerous examples of this was the first Madison water project, which brought water to Gillette.

“It’s safe to say we didn’t have the money to actually do it, but we did it anyway,” Anderson said. “We did some creative financing, and it all worked. But somebody else wouldn’t have had the nerve to go for it. But that was the thing about Mike.”

Enzi was an incredible negotiator, Anderson added, and he knew better than anyone how to work out a deal.

“He could get more people to do things they didn’t want to do than anybody else I ever worked with,” Anderson said.

Enzi also had an ability to stay “absolutely calm” in situations that would freak other people out, including Anderson said.

The city ended up having to refinance the Madison water project before it ever made the first payment on it.

Anderson remembered Enzi asking him what the downsides were to defaulting on the project.

“I go, ‘The downside? Where do you want to start? The state’ll take over the water system,’” Anderson said. “And he goes, ‘Well, yeah, but we’ll have water, won’t we?’”

Enzi loved a challenge, and he always delivered and got it done, Anderson said. While mayor, he completely focused on Gillette and accomplished things that no one else could’ve done, he added.

“He was the right man for Gillette. He saved us,” he said.

Although Enzi has been applauded, and rightfully so, for being forward-thinking, having a vision of what Gillette could become and laying the foundation so that vision could be realized, he also was able to find joy in the present. Anderson recalled watching UW football games when his daughter was in the marching band. Enzi sat about 10 rows in front of him.

“That son of a gun would sit there and never wore a hat,” he said. “It’s cold, I’m wearing as many hats as I can find, but there’s Mike, just going nuts, just happy as could be. He was in the moment.”

Wilson Restrepo uses his arms to show just how big the massive metal guitar he is in the process of constructing at Area 59 on July 30. The rock and roll enthusiast is building the guitar in hopes it will be chosen to be included with for next summer’s Avenue’s of Art selections, chosen by the Mayor’s Art Council.

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College Election Q&A: Last call for lingering questions

Editor’s note: In the final of five installments in this Q&A series leading up to a Aug. 17 special election about making Gillette College an independent district, answers from past respondents are revisited, state statute is consulted and lingering questions are answered.

Q: If the vote passes, how long will terms for the seven initial district board trustees last?

According to state statute, the seven trustees elected in the Aug. 17 special election will officially begin their terms the following day. Because it is the initial board of trustees and each will be starting Day One of their tenures, some will serve two-year terms and others will serve for four years.

In the future, all newly elected trustees will carry four-year terms.

Up to four trustees can serve four-year terms, with the rest serving for two-years before their seats are up for election.

If the vote passes, one of the first things the board will have to decide is who will serve for four years and who will serve for two years. State statute does not outline a specific process for that decision to be made.

Q: How much will this district cost?

Paul Hladky, the vice president of Cyclone Drilling and member of the Our Community, Our College PAC, said the projected budget for an independent district in Campbell County is about $15 million.

Basically, the roughly $4.5 million in state appropriation that came to Gillette College through Sheridan and the $1.3 million the college has received from the city of Gillette and Campbell County combined each year is the amount that mill levy will need to cover.

Also, institutional support expenses, such as human resources, IT infrastructure and some administrative positions will fall on the new district’s budget, too. Those costs are currently shared with Sheridan, but each will have to pay them separate in the event of a split. This will be about $1.7 million towards the budget.

Because proponents of the split have insisted that the district will not need to tax 4 mills (the maximum allowed) and therefore will be not eligible for state appropriations, the district will be responsible for the health insurance and retirement benefits of its employees.

Hladky said, without speaking for the trustees, the Gillette College insurance and retirement contribution is expected to be the same structure and continuity of what the state is paying into now.

Employees won’t lose insurance and retirement, but that match will cost the district about $1.1 million per year.

Q: Who pays for it?

Industry is going to pay the bulk of it. The heavy lifting is going to be done by industry, but Hladky said they’re also going to see the biggest benefits from it.

For homeowners — at 2 mills — a $500,000 home would be taxed another $95 per year, which is about $8 a month, or $47.50 per mill. So the average homeowner would pay about $4 to $8 more per month on their taxes.

There are higher tax rates for industrial land as well as mineral production, the latter of which gets taxed on the full value. A mill levied on mineral companies is $1 million per mill for each $1 billion of taxable income. So, 2 mills for $1 billion in taxable mineral income would be $2 million more in tax.

Q: If the vote does pass, what happens next?

Gillette College Vice President Janell Oberlander said that once elected, trustees will hire a president/CEO for the new district, who will then bring on essential administrative staff and guide the district through its accreditation process, which is expected to take three to five years.

The district will continue to be accredited through Northern Wyoming Community College District. Trustees will have to work out terms for navigating the transition between the two districts during those accreditation years.

Trustees will also be tasked with setting the mill levy and determining the budget.

Q: Will the sports program

return if the vote passes? What would that process be like?

Dr. Mark Englert, the former vice president of Gillette College who is also a member of the Our Community, Our College PAC, said that if and when sports return to Gillette College will be up to the newly elected trustees. They may or may not decide to bring back athletics.

If sports programs do return, it could take about a year from the time of the board and administration’s decision to the time of the return. Depending on the sport and the time of the academic year its season falls, there will need to be at least a semester in advance for the district to hire coaches who can recruit athletes.

Also, the college would have to rejoin Region IX in the National Junior College Athletic Association, which would essentially allow the school to schedule and play games against other colleges.

Q: Does Gillette College have to pay NWCCD $3 million each year through its transition, while seeking accreditation?

Information from the Anti-tax Coalition PAC — opposed to the new district —has said that the new district will have to pay NWCCD $3 million per year during accreditation, while the Our Community, Our College PAC — in favor of the new district — has said that is not the case.

While the bill proposing the special election to form an independent district was making its way through the state Legislature earlier this year, NWCCD President Walter Tribley sent a letter asking legislators to amend the bill to include a $3 million annual payout to Sheridan College during the transition phase.

He said in his letter that the $3 million figure is how much Sheridan College stands to lose annually in the event of a split.

That was not written into the bill. But before being finalized, an amendment was added specifying that if Gillette College becomes independent, its newly formed district and NWCCD will come to terms on an agreement for how to navigate the transition during Gillette College’s accreditation phase.

According to the senate file language, the Wyoming Community College Commission will then have to approve the terms of their deal. NWCCD will also continue to receive the state allocation for both districts until the Gillette Community College District becomes accredited.