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Montana Viewpoint: The story of Tom Lane

| September 29, 2021 12:00 AM

Every once in a while we meet people that come into our lives for a short moment, and as short as it might be, they leave a very long impression.

For me, one of those fellows was a rancher from Livingston named Tom Lane. The way I met Tom was when I was in the Montana Senate and he called me up about a piece of controversial tax legislation I was carrying. To make the explanation simple it was about Montana being able to collect income tax from out-of-state investors on land that they had sold in Montana.

If you want to get technical, the transaction was called a “1031 exchange” and you can go look that up if you’re curious.

Tom was curious, so he called me up.

“I know that the Farm Bureau is against your legislation, and I know why. I just want to know your side of things.” If you don’t know by now, it’s pretty uncommon for a person to want to hear both sides of an issue before they make up their minds as to how they feel about it.

I told Tom my version of the truth and I think he saw some merit in my argument, which was satisfying, but the bill died anyway, so Tom’s understanding was the only satisfaction I got out of it.

Tom had been raised poor in either Twin Bridges or Three Forks, I can’t remember which, and through trading and dealing and a lot of hard work had made himself into a very well to do and well respected rancher and landowner.

Other than that telephone conversation I didn’t talk much with Tom, but he did come to several of the legislative hearings on Montana Water Policy that I chaired and were held around the state. He sat and listened.

I did get to spend a couple of hours with him and his grandson in a small, old stone ranch-house on Convict Grade Road outside of Livingston.

A couple of years later I had occasion to have coffee in Livingston with a couple of wealthy easterners who had bought ranches in Montana and asked them if they knew Tom.

Indeed they did, and one of them told a story about bidding on a ranch only to find out that Tom was interested in the ranch, too.

That was enough to cause the easterner to give up the idea of purchasing the ranch as a lost cause, simply because he knew Tom could out-bid him.

But Tom had a different idea. He called my friend and said, in so many words, “If you want that ranch go ahead and buy it and I’ll step out of the way.”

And that’s what happened.

Part of the point I want to make with that story is that here was a guy — a Montanan — who came up the hard way and was thoughtful in his judgements and fair in his dealings with others.

We talk about admiring people like that and I believe that we do. I sure felt highly about Tom, and still do, though he is dead some 10 years now.

The other part of the point is that even though we admire guys like that we don’t seem to be able to put that admiration into action.

We do our best to hear only one side of the story and conduct ourselves to make sure we get the best out of a deal.

I see that somber thought reflected in public meetings today when people who are doing their best to keep Covid at bay are chastised, demonized, and shouted down, and where people see a government action as only harmful to themselves despite the fact that the decision might be beneficial to their neighbors.

In short, I see a lot of thoughtless selfishness. I don’t think that is really the kind of people we Montanans are, but I do think that there are a number of people who want us to become that kind of person.

The only thing such people are interested in advancing their own self-interest and fame and look successfully for people like you and I to manipulate.

Anger is a great tool for manipulating people. It works fast, requires no thought, and takes no prisoners.

Thoughtful persuasion can do the same thing without pitting us against one another. I don’t think Tom Lane was that unusual a person.

I think there are a lot of people like Tom, but who let themselves get shouted down by public loudmouths.

We’ve allowed ourselves to let the loudmouths have the floor, and we have to pull it out from under them. In a polite way, of course.

Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.