It is very rare to see Lonnie Collinsworth without a smile.
Whether he’s encouraging a student to pursue a project or talking about some of the most difficult times in his life, Collinsworth always has something positive to say and can always find the silver lining.
Collinsworth has been the art teacher at Whitefish High School for 15 years and can’t imagine doing anything else.
“High school students are at a great place in their lives, and the way my class works, I get to watch them grow up and mature,” Collinsworth said, adding that he gets to teach many of his students for three or four years.
As he talks, a student comes into the room to show him a sketch. Collinsworth fawns over the artwork, pointing out the student’s strengths and how she has continually improved. The two talk about plans for the student’s project; Collinsworth offers up supplies if she needs them.
As the student leaves, Collinsworth is still smiling.
“Sometimes, all they need is someone to pay attention, and help them along,” he said.
Collinsworth himself has come full circle. He credits much of his success to an art teacher he had in high school, Geane Rhodes.
Collinsworth’s mother passed away when he was young, leaving the family without a matriarch. Due to the family’s financial situation, Collinsworth thought he would not be able to afford college, and planned to go into construction work.
However, Rhodes took the Collinsworth children under her wing. She continually encouraged him to follow his dreams, and helped him find scholarships, grants and work-study programs to afford college.
“She was the one who said, ‘Have you thought about being an art teacher?’ and I honestly never had,” Collingsworth said.
“If it hadn’t been for her, I would never have gone to college, and I wouldn’t know what I would have been missing.”
Collinsworth attended the University of Montana-Western in Dillon, and later Montana State University to receive degrees in teaching art, history and shop, and an administrative degree as well as an athletic directing certificate.
Now, he passes on that knowledge to his students, and encourages them to pursue a college education, regardless of financial situation or aspirations.
To stay connected with his students, Collinsworth attends as many events as possible at the high school. He is the student council adviser and regularly attends sporting events, theater productions and other school events.
“I want to be there for them, whether as a mentor, or just cheering them on,” he said.
In addition to his work at the high school, Collinsworth also teaches the Party and Paint adult painting classes at Crush Lounge, where painters can gather to socialize, drink a glass of wine and learn to paint.
This dedication has not gone unnoticed by his students, who gave back to him in his time of need.
In January 2007, Collinsworth suddenly became very sick and within days was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
“I thought, ‘well, you’re not going to survive this,’” he recalled. Those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer typically are given only a few months to live.
Collinsworth was immediately sent to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for emergency procedures. As he left Whitefish, doctors told him they were “85 to 90 percent sure he had cancer.”
He had two different surgeries that removed parts of his pancreas, stomach, bile duct system and intestines. During the process, he lost 45 pounds and for weeks on end experienced pain he was told was on par with a woman going through labor.
However, during the process, doctors discovered that Collinsworth did not have cancer but rather a severe form of pancreatitis.
“It was a miracle story,” he said. “I’ve heard of people with pancreatic cancer who live for three weeks after finding out, and here I am, all these years later. I didn’t have what they thought I did, even though they were so sure.”
During the procedures and the healing process, Collinsworth and his family were away from the Flathead Valley for two months. During that time, the community demonstrated an incredible outpouring of support for their beloved art teacher.
High school students and staff, along with community members organized fundraisers, silent auctions and drives to raise money to defray his medical expenses. Current students and alumni sent Collinsworth letters, pieces of art and cards to encourage his recovery.
One family went so far as to pay the Collinsworths’ entire lodging bill while they were in Minnesota.
Some of the donors were close with the family, but others were complete strangers who had simply heard the art teacher’s story.
“That kind of outpouring and support from the community is something that everyone should feel,” he said. “I wouldn’t recommend they get sick first, but there’s nothing like it. Nothing even close.”
After partially recovering at the clinic, Collinsworth returned to Whitefish to continue recuperating. Doctors warned him not to return to work, or to the high school, until he completely recovered, which they suspected wouldn’t be until the next school year. However, Collinsworth was determined to return before the year was out.
During the last week of the school year, he was able to return to his classroom, and prove to the doctors, his students and himself that he was going to make it.
Since that time, Collinsworth has more or less returned to his normal schedule, encouraging students both in the art room, on the basketball court, or in any aspects of their lives.
“It’s been a very, very positive experience to work with these kids, and I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he said.
Reporter Brianna Loper may be reached at 758-4441 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.