A Primary Source of Strength
Roberta Carkeek Cheney was only sixteen years old in 1928 when she boarded a train bound for Missoula and UM. Though the trip was relatively brief, it was a long way from a home on the range to the challenges of campus and city living. Cheney had grown up on her parents’ ranch in Cameron, Montana, thirteen miles south of Ennis, and attended first through eighth grades in a one-room school nearby. She’d gone to high school in Bozeman, living in town with her grandmother. Fortunately, the Spurs—a sophomore women’s service organization that disbanded only recently—met the teenager’s train at the Milwaukee Station on the banks of the Clark Fork River. Cheney, now a popular Montana author and winner of a 2001 UM Distinguished Alumni Award, remembers the Spurs’ friendship. Their warm welcome would reverberate down through two more generations who found a place to belong at UM.
In the years since Cheney stepped off that westbound train, one of her daughters and four grandchildren have attended the University. Many things have changed since Cheney’s time—tuition is no longer $25 a semester, for one thing—but the sense of belonging hasn’t been tarnished. “All our children are very attached to The University of Montana,” says Maureen Cheney Curnow, Roberta’s daughter and a UM French professor. “They consider it a primary source of their strength.”
During her time at UM, Cheney honed her writing skills by penning a musical skit for her Kappa Delta sorority. The play, a spoof about UM health services director, Ida B. Clair, featured the round-bodied sorority sisters as bottles of pink pills and the tall girls as bottles of green gargle. Those were the only remedies regularly dispensed on campus. The girls sang: “If you get the flu/don’t go kerchoo/Just go to Ida B. Clair.”
Cheney graduated from UM in 1932 and headed to Lavina, Montana, for a job teaching high school English, French, and biology. There she met her husband, Truman Cheney, and was forced to give up teaching to marry him. The morals of the time decreed that married women were not suitable to teach children. “We all resented that mother wasn’t able to keep teaching,” Curnow said, citing a feminist streak in the family line. “But she turned it to her advantage and became a wonderful writer.” Cheney has authored a dozen books and several hundred newspaper articles. Her best-known book is Names on the Face of Montana: The Story of Montana’s Place Names. The historical reference brings to life the early origins of the state’s settlements. She writes:
Missoula, a county seat, was first called Missoula Mills because the town was built around flour [mills] and sawmills. The origin of the name Missoula has never been agreed upon, but several ideas have found their way into print: [Albert and Jane] Salisbury says, “Indians used to call Hellgate Canyon ‘Issoul’ meaning horrible. From this the growing city got its name.” [J.P.] Rowe insists it is a “Salish Indian word meaning ‘River of Awe.’” Duncan McDonald claimed it is from an Indian word meaning “sparkling waters”; according to Montana: a Guide Book, “Missoula takes its name from a Salish Indian word, ‘Im I sul a,’ meaning ‘by the chilling waters.’” And Stoute agrees with Rowe that the name is from the Salish ‘In mis sou let ka,’ which translates into English as the ‘River of Awe.’
Cheney now lives on the family ranch in Cameron with her other daughter, Karen Cheney Shores. The ranch remains a focal point for Cheney’s children and grandchildren, despite the fact that most live outside Montana. Curnow’s family, which has been in Montana since 1864, boasts seven generations of Montanans. “All of our children come home to our ranch,” she says. “It’s kind of their refuge.”
Curnow, sister Karen, and brother Larry grew up all over Montana and the West, the family moving several times for Truman’s evolving career from high school teacher and administrator to college professor. He joined the ranks of the grizzly in 1940, when he earned a master’s degree in education from UM. So it was only natural that young Maureen would gravitate toward Missoula.
She first came to UM in 1956, studying economics and marketing. “My parents were living in Oregon,” Curnow says. “I came here because I wanted to ski.” Curnow left UM to study abroad in Paris and later finished her bachelor’s degree at the University of Nevada, where her father was teaching. She earned advanced degrees in French from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and returned to Paris on a Fulbright scholarship. “It was the post-sputnik era,” she says, “so there were good scholarships for people who were studying languages.”
In 1966, seeking her first teaching job, Curnow chose UM out of several offers. She’s been here ever since. In her thirty-seven years at UM, Curnow has been associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and chair of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures. She also has served on a number of boards and committees and received several awards, including UM’s Annual Diversity Award and the Outstanding Administrator Award.
Maureen met her husband and fellow Francophile, Ed Curnow, in a ski resort pub in Nevada. (He earned a master’s degree in history from UM in 1969.) Their children also are UM alums; Carina and her husband, Mike, attended in the summers 1998 and 2001 and Jason earned a bachelor of science degree in 1994. Jason married another UM grad, Faye Potter pharmacy ’94, and they live in Seattle with their two-year-old son, Logan.
Curnow, her mother, and her son all were part of UM’s Greek community: Roberta in Kappa Delta, Maureen in Alpha Phi, and Jason in Sigma Nu.
Four of Roberta and Truman Cheney’s seven grandchildren are UM grads. Besides Jason, there are Eric and Kevin Shores and Kristina Cheney Graham. And all four inherited Roberta’s and Maureen’s love for the French language, traveling to Paris and Burgundy, France, through UM’s Study Abroad program.
Curnow regrets that of all the grandchildren, only Eric thus far has settled in Montana. Carina, currently a paramedic in Missoula and Polson, plans to leave the state to attend medical school, with hopes of returning to Montana. The others have found good jobs outside the state.
“We have a very good reputation for reliable, honest, responsible people,” she says. “The only grief is that these kids are not in Montana—because the salaries are too low. It’s hard to get them back to Montana because of the economic conditions. They all gravitate back to Montana when they can.”
Maureen is only half joking when she says grandson Logan will be a member of the UM graduating class of 2022. “We are assuming he’ll be a fourth-generation UM graduate,” she says. And if he should decide to attend another university? “I’ll tell him we won’t pay for it!”
Patia Stephens ’00 is Web content editor for UM’s University Relations and the first of her family to attend UM. Her parents met while they were art students at San Jose State University.