My Grandfather

By John N. Maclean


The Rev. John Norman Maclean brought his family to Montana 100 years ago this year, when he became pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Missoula. On October 11, 2009, current members of his former parish honored him by unveiling a memorial stone dedicated to him and to his close friend, A.J. Gibson, the noted architect who designed the church -- which was built during Maclean's pastorate. The Reverend's grandson and namesake, John Norman Maclean, was among the speakers who helped dedicate the memorial stone. His remarks follow.

Thank you for inviting me here today to participate in the dedication of a memorial stone to my grandfather and namesake, the Rev. John Norman Maclean. My grandfather cast a long shadow both in the life of my family, where he was ever-present in spirit, and in the life of this community, as today's ceremony is testament.

Dedication of the memorial, October 2009 Over the years, I've come to know the Reverend in a variety of ways, not least through the efforts of Jim Habeck of this congregation, who has worked diligently to establish many facts of my grandfather's biography. Although the Reverend was gone in the flesh by the time I came along, it would be wrong to think that I've never had direct contact with him. As people of the spirit, it will come as no surprise to you that knowledge of another can come from unseen sources.

I knew my grandfather first, of course, through my father, Norman Maclean, for whose entire life the Reverend was an inspiring force, a quotable figure and a heavy anchor. Even after my father became the William Rainey Harper Professor of English at the University of Chicago, he would quote in the classroom from his father:  Can you imagine the effect on a bunch of Brooklyn atheists who had never been west of the Mississippi River of having a Presbyterian minister from the backwoods of Montana cited as an authority on some point of English literature?

Oh, the quotes weren't all that startling:  it was stuff like, "as my father used to say, if you have a lemon on your hands, make lemonade out of it." But my dad would utter the quotations with the same reverence as when he quoted from Wordsworth or Shakespeare.

The Rev. John Norman Maclean I came to know the Reverend, too, through young bucks from Missoula for whom he served as mentor and who later became my friends. George Croonenberghs, my oldest friend, first took up fly tying, for which he later became famous, under the Reverend's tutelage. George was the youngest of the Maclean and Croonenberghs boys, who lived near each other in Missoula and at Seeley Lake, and being the kid, George was often left behind when the older guys went fishing. The Reverend, seeing his sad plight, would invite George over to the Maclean cabin at the lake. The two of them, the old man with a pipe in his mouth and the youngster wide-eyed and adoring, would sit together on the porch at a tying vise until it got too windy, and then they would go inside, where they had to negotiate space with Mrs. Maclean.

"When you went to see the Reverend, you had to be careful," George once told me. "You had to apply to Mrs. Maclean to see if it was okay. Sometimes she'd say, 'No, the Reverend is taking his nap,' or she'd say, 'No, he's studying, you'll have to come back another time."

Memorial:  click to enlarge Another Missoula youth befriended by the Reverend was Davey Roberts, who went on to become a noted outdoor writer. In the first spring after my grandfather died Davey devoted a column to him and drew a vivid picture.

"It was at this time each year that Old Maclean went to his cabin on Seeley Lake," Davey wrote. "He worked around a good deal, clearing out dead limbs that the snow and ice had brought down, fetching in wood for the cookstove, sweeping here and raking there. But most of all, in the spring, Old Maclean liked to fish for trout. It was, in the later seasons, about the only fishing he could do with comfort and success, for the years were heavy on his shoulders.

"He was long in the mountains. He'd come at the turn of the century from the tight little hills of Nova Scotia, where he'd preached in the Presbyterian pulpit, to the same church in Western Montana. At first, he told me afterward, the tremendous masses of the Rockies were unfriendly, cold, after the smaller wooded hills of home. But that was only for a while.

"As he grew older he took on the character of the mountains which he came to love. He was quiet, like the giant peaks about him; quiet and dependable; calm, full of philosophy and goodness, humor and common sense. In the last few years he referred to himself often as "Old Maclean," and it stirred a smile always when we younger anglers took it up."

News item:  Arrival in Missoula, 1909 The Reverend has become a presence to me, too, through direct touch, though that sounds impossible. The log cabin at Seeley Lake, which the Reverend built by hand, is still there, and every few years I rub the logs with linseed oil and turpentine, as have generations of my family before me. Each time, the Reverend becomes an almost palpable presence, most especially when I reach the joins at the corners of the cabin. The Reverend notched each log using nothing more than a hatchet, a process that must have taken hours for each log. The job can be done today with a few slashes of a chain saw, usually leaving a V-shaped cut that invites the logs to split. The Reverend's U-shaped joins, to the contrary, have kept their integrity for nearly a century.

The Reverend Maclean was a man of intellectual depth and physical craft who mingled religious fervor with a passionate love of nature:  that was his special gift as it has come down to me, the example of a man who lived a spiritual life that started at the altar but quickly took flight to encompass the majesty of the created world, most especially Seeley Lake, the Big Blackfoot River, and the mountains of Montana. This dedication ceremony brings together many ways of knowing my grandfather:  the facts of his biography, observations of those who were his friends, something of the spirit he left behind, and even the craft of his hand.

On behalf of my family, past, present, and future, thank you; and may his legacy, like the mountains he loved, continue to guide and inspire us, and give us peace.
Images courtesy of Bob Mutch and Jim Habeck