The real start was a quiet dinner, circa 1969. Mayor and dinner host Willard Frazier introduced a small group of Billings community leaders and city employees to a regional Boys Club official. The goal: to see if a Boys Club could be established in Billings. Tim Healey, then manager of Midland National Bank’s trust department, sat in, but dubiously. “I didn’t think a club was possible here” he remembers. But possible it was. Almost like magic (or maybe divine intervention, says Healey), help came from across the country – from Los Angeles to Baltimore, from Florida to Martinsdale. At every turn, timing was perfect. At every standstill, Billings folks – including legendary names like Alberta Bair, Archie Cochrane, Ward Swanser and Joseph Sample advanced the cause.
Mayor Frazier’s dinner guests had listened courteously, with several staying on for a short meeting after dinner. Soon, a board of directors was formed with Healey serving as the Boys Club’s first president and local attorney Ward Swanser going to work on the club’s not-for-profit IRS status.
Healey and others soon began soliciting local backing. They agreed to ask Billings businesses and individuals for $1,000 each in the first round and to later approach additional businesses and individuals for gifts of $500.
Archie Cochrane’s gift came first. Cochrane’s initial gift of $1,000 “courage money” became $5,000 by the year -end, the top gift in a $20,000 plus net. This coupled with expectations of an additional $5,000 from out of state foundations (which never materialized) was determined sufficient to proceed with finding an executive director with experience in Boys Clubs.
Coincidence delivered the big break. During a Billings vacation stop, Gordon Eldredge and his family were steered by the United Way (then United Good Neighbor) to Tim Healey. Eldredge, Director of the Baltimore Boys Club, had been lured West by an interest in Native American culture. Mere months later, the Eldredges were back in Billings, at home this time, with Gordon installed as our fledgling Boys Club’s director (a position he would hold for 25 years).
Gordon set up shop in the dusty basement of the Parmly Library (now the Western Heritage Center), the temporary club home. Shortly, he would move the club to its second site, enabled by the Joseph Sample family. Sample, a local television pioneer, arranged for the club to buy the International Harvester Building at 20 South Broadway. An acquaintance of the International Harvestor’s president, Sample negotiated a price of $34,000 (book value), on a building with the asking price of $138,000. And practically before the ink dried, an anonymous gift for the purchase price arrived at the club’s door. “The donor was later identified as Joe’s mother,” said Healey.
The Eldredge family and volunteers cleaned, decorated, and spruced up the newly purchased club home, ushering in a new era. Over the next 13 years, the club grew in members and programs, helping thousands of children by 1985. The Boys Club of Billings had become a Southside fixture, a sure physical and social presence for neighborhood families and children.
In 1985, a new drama unfolded. The start was innocent enough: a call from a Los Angeles realtor to Alberta Bair’s estate managers. The realtor’s client desired a 7500-square-foot L.A. parking lot owned by Miss Bair (1895-1993) and the Charles M. Bair Trust of Martinsdale, Montana. Miss Bair declined to sell, but the property was hot. As calls and offers poured in (up to $200,000), she relented. Days later, the property sold in a live auction for $2.8 million. The bidders: two of L.A.’s largest wholesale jewelers-in person, with their attorneys and real-estate agents in tow. As a result, the club received over $700,000, a substantial portion of the 1.2 million needed to buy and build on today’s club site.
On February 26, 1986, the Boys & Girls Club of Billings and Yellowstone County, 505 Orchard Lane, was officially dedicated as the Charles M. Bair Family Memorial Building. Today, some 30+ years later, the building and the club’s mission stand firm, supporting the important work of building up and urging on great kids.