GREAT FALLS — A man synonymous with giving back to his community and preserving the legacy of a western art legend is honored as a Montana Heritage Keeper by the Montana Historical Society.
Gene Thayer’s commitment to his community can be seen all over Great Falls. From helping expand the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, the First Presbyterian Church, the Great Falls Rescue MIssion and more.
He’s also played a big role in the development and expansion of the CM-Russell Museum, where Montana honored him on Tuesday.
Thayer is one of only three people this year to earn the prestigious Montana Heritage Keeper Award.
“I’ve had several awards, but this is this one statewide and it's something that I'm very proud to have,” said Thayer, who grew up in Belt.
According to the Montana Historical Society, awardees must have demonstrated commitment to a significant Montana history project or projects or to the identification and preservation of objects or property of general or specific significance to Montana history and culture.
“He's concentrated his work here in Cascade County and in Great Falls, but that work, of course, translates itself across the state and preserving history for all of Montana,” said Montana Historical Society Director Molly Kruckenberg. “So, we're really pleased to be here at the C.M. Russell Museum. We're building partnerships between the Historical Society and the Russell Museum.”
Thayer has been a long-time supporter of the C.M. Russell Museum, most recently co-chairing the facility’s Art and Soul Campaign which raised $40 million.
“To celebrate, Gene, is to really celebrate the history of the museum,” said C.M. Russell Museum Executive Director Tom Figarelle. “I mean, when we go back and look at who's been involved with our boards, are our committees. Since the 1970s, it's really Gene. Up until just this this current year, when we closed out a record setting campaign.”
“This museum is the best example we have in Great Falls of preserving the Montana heritage,” said Thayer. “With all the Charlie Russell paintings and all of that, this is the perfect place to hold this event.”
Thayer was nominated for the award by another well-known Great Falls resident and museum supporter, Norma Ashby Smith.
With places like the C.M. Russell Museum playing a significant role in the city’s history, Thayer says it’s important to give back.
“If God blesses you financially or any other way, you know, we're supposed to give back,” said Thayer. “And that's I believe that all my life. And and that's that's why I do it.
Ramona Holt of Lolo and well-known Helena Historian Ellen Baumler are also 2023 awardees.
The USS Montana Committee received the Montana Heritage Guardian Award.
Thayer’s award comes a year after Arlyne Reichert, affectionately known as the Bridge Lady in Great Falls, and a member of the 1972 Montana Constitutional Convention also took home the honor.
Thayer’s speech at the presentation which includes reflections on growing up in Belt and more on his spirit of giving: