MOLLI Program for Seniors Grows at the University of Montana

Story by KEILA SZPALLER

Eyebrows jumped when author Gayle Morrison told the crowd of 70 or so that nearly 100 smokejumpers worked for the CIA when the U.S. was at war in Southeast Asia.

“Mostly, they were the cargo handlers, the kickers, working for Air America,” Morrison said. “Air America, although nobody knew it at the time, was owned by the CIA.”

The classroom in the James E. Todd Building at the University of Montana was packed, but few people were taking notes.

The students all were members of MOLLI, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, a program offering courses for people who are 50 years or older through the School of Extended & Lifelong Learning.

Morrison, author of “Sky is Falling,” about the fall of an air base in Laos, and “Hog’s Exit,” the story of a Missoula smokejumper and CIA officer named Jerry Daniels, was the featured speaker for the special members event in August.

Gayle Morrison holds up her book “Sky is Falling,” during a MOLLI class.

Her talk was called “How the Hmong Came to be in Missoula: Success of Refugees.”

MOLLI member Anita Kurtz-Magee said she was interested in learning more about bringing refugees into the country in the 1970s since the U.S. is doing so again. The member going on six years also praised the program as one that offers affordable courses and quality lecturers and studies.

“I just hope people take advantage of it because it’s a gift to the community,” Kurtz-Magee said.

MOLLI started in 2005, and membership in the program has grown since then.

The program counted 119 members and 12 courses and events in the 2005-2006 school year, said Karen Hendrick-son, MOLLI program manager. Last school year, the program counted 1,227 members and 70 courses and events.

Classes on history are the biggest draw, and the ones taught by Mehrdad Kia about the Middle East are by far the most popular, enrolling some 300 students, Hendrickson said. Kia is a UM history professor and among the campus faculty and professionals and scholars in the community who teach courses.

In August, MOLLI members were calling to sign up for Rafael Chacon’s class even before registration opened, said Teri Zanto, coordinator with MOLLI. Chacon, a UM professor of art history and criticism, planned to teach a fall course called “Over there! Montanans in the Great War.”

“There’s a lot of professors here that people just love. It doesn’t matter what they teach, people just take it,” Zanto said.

This fall, MOLLI is offering 22 classes, and subjects range from the poetry of Wallace Stevens to ethics in media to chemistry in the kitchen — and multiple offerings in history.

The courses are targeted to seniors because the Osher family wants people to stay active and engaged, Hendrickson said: “They’re just very interested in keeping that population healthy for as long as they can.”

At the special event in August, Morrison shared the reason Hmong people live in Missoula, one that goes back to the CIA’s secret war in Laos during the Vietnam War.

In 1960, the CIA made contact with a couple of key people, one in Asia and one in Missoula, Montana. The Hmong are mountain people who had moved from China to North Vietnam to Thailand to Laos, and in Laos, the CIA connected with Lt. Col. Vang Pao, a dynamic anticommunist.

“We both have the same objective. You can raise soldiers. We have arms and ammunition. How about we get together, and we support you in our mutual anticommunist movement?” Morrison said. “He says absolutely. Bring it on. And within a week, he’s raised an army of 9,000.”

Meanwhile, the CIA came to Missoula because it was looking for people with skills that smokejumpers have. Jerry Daniels, a natural athlete who became a smokejumper at age 17, was among those at the top of the list of people who would be of use to the agency overseas.

“They could live independently and make their own decisions,” Morrison said.

Eventually, the CIA became in charge of the secret war in Laos, and Pao and Daniels worked together on an air base during the Vietnam War. From the base, Hmong soldiers could disrupt North Vietnam’s supply route, later named the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

“(Daniels) loved it. He loved the operations. He loved working with the Hmong soldiers,” Morrison said.

The Hmong people respected him as well, she said. He fit in with them, eating the same foods and living the same lifestyle, she said; he was fearless but never foolish; and unlike their own government officials and other Americans, he never lied to them.

“If it was going to be bad, he told them,” Morrison said. After the fall of Saigon, North Vietnamese troops were circling in Laos, and the CIA knew they had to get Pao and Daniels out if they were to survive. At the time, Daniels was the only American still living on the base around the clock.

Daniels helped figure out how to get many Hmong people out of the country, and he stayed with them in Thailand for seven years, Morrison said. She said his own connection to Missoula is the reason many Hmong people are here.

In the 1960s, Pao had sent his three sons to Missoula, where they attended school with Daniels’ nephews. And Daniels’ mom, Louise Daniels, visited her son overseas and helped resettle Hmong in Missoula as well.

Daniels died a mysterious death; the casket that supposedly holds his body is in Missoula, but different theories exist about his passing, Morrison said. General Pao died of natural causes related to his heart.

Morrison, who has visited other Hmong communities in the U.S., said those in Missoula are the ones who have most embraced the local lifestyle. They hunt, fish, camp and “they absolutely love the Montana lifestyle.”

“They’re at least as Montanan as they are Hmong,” Morrison said.

After her talk, the students asked questions, and then, they gathered around a “story cloth” the Hmong people created about their life in Missoula. The piece of art is part of the permanent collection of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture, and MOLLI members got an up close look at the intricate embroidery depicting life in Missoula at the special event.

Kurtz-Magee, who signs up for every class by Chacon and also once took quantum math — “over my head, but it was fun” — said some of her younger friends are envious of the classes she gets to take.

“I have some younger friends that say, ‘I can’t wait ‘til I’m old enough to go to MOLLI,” she said.