Everyday Rabbit Holes

A FedEx Boeing 777 near Powell flying from Memphis to Seattle.

Most people would consider my hometown of Powell, Wyoming—whether they live here or are visiting—a pretty remote place in this world of eight billion humans. Certainly there are other places more remote, but in terms of averages in the United States, we’re pretty much in the boondocks, the sticks, the hinterlands… the middle of nowhere. Some locals call this part of Wyoming, “The Big Empty.”

Typical of remote locations, there is often a lack of diversity in the populations occupying them. And, Powell, Wyoming is no different. With the exception of a small body of international students at the local college, Powell is pretty much a  “white-bread” community.

Yet, nearly every clear day I’m reminded that perhaps we aren’t that remote and maybe we’re a little more diverse than I think.

Thanks to a little app on my phone called Plane Finder, I can learn about the planes that fly overhead on any given day which are relatively many given we are in the middle of nowhere. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like we are near a major airport, but I’m astounded in how many planes I see flying overhead on any given day—even if they are typically 25,000 feet or higher. And, thanks to Plane Finder, I know about any given plane’s origins, its destination, how high above me it is flying, how fast it is traveling, how long it has been in the air and how much more time remaining in its flight, its manufacturer and model, its flight number, and which airline it represents.

Real time image of FX17 in PlaneFinder.

Beyond the knowledge of these airplanes overhead, flying from all over the country (and world), it’s fun to think about the diversity of the passengers onboard those aircraft that are only about thirty-some thousand feet away as they transit the typical blue skies over Powell. They may look down and see an arid and sparsely populated land mass below—that is anything but inspirational—but I look up and think about the places where they are going to and coming from, and the variety of cultures on board, and suddenly my outlook on the day gets a little brighter. 

For example, just today I looked up to see a plane heading almost due south. It was flying from Calgary/YYC to Dallas-Fort Worth/DFW. Not long after, another plane flying due east from Portland/PDX to Chicago/ORD. Other days, I’ve looked up to discover a plane coming from Frankfurt/FRA and heading to Los Angeles/LAX or Las Vegas/LAS.

Visiting with one of my students today—who happens to be an international student from Timor-Leste—I said to her, “You must see all kinds of planes flying over your home town.” Strangely enough, she said airplanes are pretty rare. I was in disbelief, so we looked at the current air traffic over Timor-Leste via Plane Finder, and oddly enough, she was right. There’s all kinds of air traffic in that part of the world, but the routes seem to circumvent her island nation for whatever reason.

I was telling a couple of my colleagues in the art department about this and wondering how we could do some kind of collaborative art project about this local, overhead anomaly. (If something comes to mind as you’re reading this, feel free to leave a comment, or just run with this idea and do something about the planes that fly over your community—wherever it is. I’d love to hear about it too.)

In case you are wondering, yes Powell/POY does have an airport, but no major carriers service our lone landing strip where (mostly) single-engine puddle jumpers land and take-off. If you want to get on a major carrier airplane while in Powell, you’ll have to find your way to nearby Cody/COD or Billings, Montana/BIL about 90-miles away.

Of course, now that I know more about these planes that fly quietly overhead, more questions have found their way to me, leading to more rabbit holes to go down on the internet. For example, I noted that FedEx flies their planes over Powell on a regular basis from Memphis/MEM to Portland/PDX or Seattle/SEA and back.

FedEx’s Memphis hub map of flights.

That got me thinking, “What’s so significant about Memphis/MEM to Portland/PDX or Memphis/MEM to Seattle/SEA? It turns out that  Memphis/MEM is the main hub and the location of their headquarters. Everything that is FedEx seems to pass through Memphis/MEM. And, how did that come to be, I wondered? Because during FedEx’s infancy, they purposely chose Memphis/MEM because Memphis International Airport/MEM is near the mean population center of the country and inclement weather is relatively infrequent compared to other centrally located international airports.

Now I need to know how many planes they have…

Foundation Follies

Powell Tribune Publisher Dave Bonner explains to the NWC Board of Trustees his plan to rule the world starting with them.

After the last Board of Trustees meeting (February 14), it’s pretty clear that The Northwest College Foundation has declared war on “Yellowstone College.” They’ve sat quietly over the last two years as this idea has been kicked around, and much to their surprise, has built up steam. My guess is, they were hoping it would eventually go away on its own, and without their input. But, something happened since those early discussions that Foundation members didn’t foresee… Yellowstone College could be a real thing.

As a result, Dave Bonner, the Foundation President stood up in front of the Board and in so many words yelled an emphatic “no” to the idea of a name change at Northwest College. Sitting quietly nearby was Shelby Wetzel, his daughter and Executive Director of the Foundation. Bonner was provided back-up from his Foundation minions Chris Taggart and Clay Cummins who also serve on the Foundation as assistant treasurer and one of the directors respectively. Along with Bonner, these two reek of rich, affluent Whiteness. On the Foundation website, Taggart is listed as a modest “insurance and investment rep” for Taggart Co. However, Taggart Co. is an affiliate/partner with Dun & Bradstreet, and Taggart himself is the principal owner. Cummins is listed as a retired Army lieutenant colonel.

Despite this Johnny-come-lately pushback from key members of the Foundation, one has to wonder what their true motivation is. Of course they claim it’s mostly about the money—the “huge and ongoing cost” of a college name change despite plenty of evidence provided over the past year that says otherwise. They also make claim to the Northwest College name itself—in its “rich tradition.”

Yeah, whatever. Maybe the die-hards of “Eastern Montana College” will be sympathetic.

The question that all of us should be asking today is: If the Foundation supports the college in all it does, why are they leaning so hard on the Board of Trustees now? One would think someone was proposing we change our name from Yellowstone College to Northwest College instead.

If you believe I’m overreacting to the “weight” of the Foundation on college policy and decisions, you haven’t attended many of the various college meetings I have over the years to discover the Foundation’s Executive Director front and center in attendance. So many times my faculty colleagues and I have asked ourselves, “What is she doing here? This doesn’t concern her.”

With all of this in mind, I’ve been seeking input from others in contemplating what might be the Foundation’s true rationale in resisting the name change. Of course, the Foundation leadership would never declare or reveal their true motivation, but given the profile of a group like the Foundation, its cultural geography in the country, and even its own little history, what I propose in the following is hardly a stretch.

1. The executive director doesn’t want to work hard
Explaining to her easy-money base (i.e., staunch Republicans/Trumpers/good-old-boy network) why the college needs to change its name and why they need to keep on giving to it will surely be challenging. Yet, quite possibly she fails to see the opportunity to gain alumni that could get behind “Yellowstone College” those who have never supported the institution before. Further, she doesn’t want to deal with the future new donors of Yellowstone College who will likely be cut from a different cloth than her typical clientele. All of this is way too much work for the cushy position she has carved out for herself over the years.

2. Yellowstone College means more diversity.
With the new name of Yellowstone College, our institution will net greater interest from far beyond our service area. We will be found and researched easier from other parts of the country and world. We might even get better students, better faculty, better staff, and God forbid… less Whiteness. They don’t want outsiders coming in here and discovering how stupid we are or having our “that’s the way we’ve always done it” mentality challenged. Consider the Whiteness of the Foundation itself.

Ethnic or cultural diversity is not the strength of the Northwest College Foundation Board.

This same grim rationale was said to have played out once at Flathead Community College when they passed on the opportunity to hire Phil Jackson after he retired from playing but before he started coaching. When they turned him down one of the trustees came right out and said that with him, the school might attract the wrong sort of players.

As one colleague said, “The powers-that-be at Northwest College want to keep it sleepy because it’s easy.”

3. It’s not their idea.
Beyond what is mentioned above in their opposition of a college name-change, it could be as simple as they weren’t the ones to initially offer this up to the public. For years when the few of us mentioned name-change in conversation, it was considered more of an impossibility and thus, treated like a joke. Seldom in the past did anyone every arrive at that point of, “You know, that’s not a bad idea.”

Some people probably think, “Well Morgan, you just don’t like the Bonners.” That’s true, but it’s not baseless or whimsical. My only reasoning has to do with their strangle hold on our campus community via their unscrupulous and overt display of nepotism and their monopoly on information within and beyond the campus. Any ethical newsperson would refrain from taking any kind of leadership role within an institituion such as the Foundation given its wealth of finances. And any ethical Foundation director would divorce themselves of a newspaper operation—let alone serving as one of its directors. Some refer to these kind of scenarios as a “conflict of interest.”

Yet, there they are embedded like ticks in a suffering dog. Bonners own and dictate the only source of news for Powell and the campus community, as the campus newspaper and journalism program were cut years ago. And, we shouldn’t be so naive to think that someone named Bonner didn’t weigh in on that decision either. Two Bonners now hold key positions on the powerful Foundation—Executive Director and President, not to mention all of their powerful Foundation friends who kowtow to them as well.

In all of this, my only surprise is they haven’t offered up the compromise of “Bonner College” in lieu of Yellowstone College.

A Recipe for a Greater America

The Mars rover Perseverance is slowly lowered to
the Martian surface by the onboard sky crane.

You want to talk about making America great (again)? I’ve news for you—it’s already here.

It was on full display this past Thursday in NASA’s Pasadena, California Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) when the Perseverance rover was lowered onto the surface of Mars after a seven-month journey covering over 300 million miles.

No matter how you look at it, the landing of the car-sized Perseverance on the Martian surface was a great event that went without a hitch. And, great events don’t happen without great people running the show.

As I witnessed this event unfold, I started noting how many people of color and how many women were part of this show—starting with Swati Mohan, the mission’s guidance, navigation, and control operations lead. I have no idea what the demographic breakdown of the mission’s team is, but it certainly didn’t resemble anything like those Apollo missions with a room full of Anglos assembled in Houston’s mission control back in the 60s and 70s.

I read recently that NASA as a whole still has a long way to go in terms of diversity, with 72% White and 34% women employees. I’d be surprised if those were the same numbers on the Perseverance mission team.

If we truly witnessed greatness the other day—and I believe we did—then the recipe for greatness was right in front of us in the diversified gathering of individuals who define the Perseverance mission to Mars.