BILLINGS — Kylee Christensen is orginially from Utah, but said she moved to Montana based on instinct. Shortly after transplanting herself, she discovered her roots had nearly 70 years of length in the Big Sky state.
Her great grandparents, Noel and Mary Rigby, who are Billings natives, had been education professionals in the area for several generations of students.
When Christensen posted an inquiry to the Facebook group Billings, Montana As She Was, she received hundreds of responses from Billings residents, past and present, who were willing to help her put the puzzle pieces of her family together.
"Mrs. Rigby was my sixth grade teacher ... She was nice, but firm ... Being (83 years old) now, I'm happy I remember that much, I guess," said Judy Trenka, who is still a Billings local.
Christensen said she was overwhlemed by the number of stories from people who knew the family from school, church, and their personal lives.
“It was really emotional. It was just amazing to see that 30 (to) 40 years after they passed, there was this many people that remembered them," said Christensen.
Not all the stories that were shared were entirely positive, according to Christensen, but she said she was happy to have her great grandparents' legacy humanized. Many of these negative accounts surrounded what was described by Facebook comments as Noel's no-nonsense attitude as an authoritarian principal who was notorious for paddlings.
“A lot of kids knew, once in a while, when you do something that you’re not supposed to do, he was the first one you would go see, and on occasion, I would have to see him," said Tom Blankenship, a Billings Navy veteran and musician.
Christensen said she also learned a significant amount about her great aunt, Margaret Rigby, who was diagnosed with severe rheumatoid arthritis as a high school student, a disability that kept her wheelchair-bound until she passed away in her early 40s.
“Learning about (Margaret's) story has made me so grateful for the mobility I do have," said Christensen.
Shortly after Margaret's passing, the Margaret Rigby Class of 1956 Memorial Scholarship was organized by local Billings educators. The educational opportunity has provided 14 students with a total of more than $38,000 in scholarships since its founding in the 1980s, according to the Montana Community Foundation.
“They were really wonderful people in this community," said Janet Blankenship, Tom's wife, who knew the Rigby family prior to meeting her husband.
Despite the adversarial nature between student and teacher, even those who described childhood headbuttings with the family of educators said they were grateful for the Rigbys part in their upbringing.
“As a result of their teaching and their example that they set, (I was) put in position to be able to do well when I was in the Navy and any other challenges I had. At least they inspired you to be the best that you could be," said Tom.