FVCC founder Bill McClaren dies at 89

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Bill and Lois McClaren pose for a portrait in 2017. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake file)

Bill McClaren, the last living founder of Flathead Valley Community College, died Tuesday in Kalispell. He was 89.

McClaren was among the five visionaries who sat around a table in 1965 and mulled over the idea of a community college in Kalispell. That discussion became the springboard for the creation of FVCC in 1967. McClaren was the college’s first employee, serving as not only its first dean of students but also as head guidance counselor.

Years before the idea of a community college solidified, McClaren was setting the stage to support the rationale for higher education in the Flathead Valley from his counselor’s office at Flathead High School. He was working toward a master’s degree in high school counseling from Columbia University, and had to find a research project.

His university adviser asked him, “What are your students doing after graduation?” McClaren didn’t think that question had ever been asked, he told a reporter last year as FVCC was celebrating its 50th anniversary. McClaren then conducted a study of Flathead High School graduates from 1952 to 1962 and found less than 20 percent had applied for any type of higher education, and less than 7 percent of those had completed their course work.

Comparing the findings to those of graduates in Missoula County, in which over half the students went on to college and 40 percent graduated, the contrast was too significant to be ignored. He united with Owen Sowerwine, Norm Beyer, Thelma Hetland and Les Sterling to successfully encourage voters to establish the college in 1967. McClaren worked at the college until he retired in 1981.

McClaren and his wife, Lois, were presented the college’s prestigious Eagle Award for the 2010-2011 academic year by FVCC President Jane Karas during the annual President’s Donor Dinner. The award honors individuals who have made outstanding contributions to FVCC.

In her presentation, Karas described the McClarens as “two of FVCC’s greatest advocates.” She said that Bill was the caring, gentle leader who was the anchor and glue that kept the infant college alive and credited Lois as the “wind beneath his wings.”

Beyond his work at FVCC, McClaren was well-known for his love of gardening and his expertise in raising dahlias. He started the Montana Dahlia Society and spent 40 years judging flower competitions around the United States. He judged dahlias and other floriculture exhibits at the Northwest Montana Fair for decades. Through the years McClaren hybridized dahlias and named dozens of new varieties. He and Lois ran Alpen Gardens for nearly two decades.

A celebration of life will be held at a later date. A full obituary will be published in the Sunday edition of the Daily Inter Lake.

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