Where are they now? Bill Kennedy
Interviewee: Bill Kennedy
Interviewer: Kyle Hansen
Bill Kennedy has been serving Yellowstone County as County Commissioner for 23 years. A Billings native, Kennedy earned his master’s degree from Eastern Montana College and his undergraduate from Montana State University. Kennedy was a teacher in Montana before becoming a local governmental official in Billings. As county commissioner, Bill has overseen multiple projects within Yellowstone County such as the rebuilding of the Metra and the creation of the Yellowstone National Cemetery for veterans. Bill and his wife, Mary, also own and operate The Wine Market and Deli on Grand Avenue in Billings.
KH: Where are you now and what has been your path to getting here?
BK: My undergrad is from MSU Bozeman. But, ’76’-’77 school year, I went to Eastern Montana College. I went to the hearing at noon to speak on the middle school being named after Ben Steele. Ben Steele was my art professor when I was at MSU Billings. I was an art major for the first year, and then went to Bozeman in architecture, and switched after the second year and went into education. I finished my undergraduate degree in education and then I went on to do my student teaching at Billings West and then graduated from Bozeman, and got a job in Colstrip. Taught there for three years. Junior high, I did shop and then I did U.S. History and Montana History. From there, I transferred back here to Billings and taught at the Billings Catholic Schools for four years. Went on to St. Thomas and was a parish administrator for a couple of years. Then went back into the school district and ran Even Start Family Literacy Program, putting parents back into school to get their GED’s. We ran a, I’d never done it before in my life, and we’d ran an early childhood center. And we did parent training. And during that time, when I came back in 1985, I came back to Eastern Montana College, and got my graduate degree in counseling. Personnel and guidance with an emphasis in school counseling. I did an internship at St. Vincent’s in personnel. I did an internship at Castle Rock Junior High in counseling, and was teaching all the way through. I am an alumni of Eastern Montana College, or MSU Billings, and very proud of it. I’m a product of the MSU system. An educator, and working with kids, working with adults, once an educator always an educator. But I’m also a creature of the whole governmental system. And that’s what enticed back in 1992 to run for a local government office. I’ve been on the commission for 23 years. I’ve been elected five times, and I’ve been serving people in Yellowstone County for the past 23 years. I have three more years left on my term, which will put me in at 26 years at the end of this term. So the decision will have to made some time between the second and third year if I decide to run for one more term. Because I’m a creature of habit, and love to see government work correctly. I feel the closest government is to the people and that’s what I taught the kids. From the beginning of Montana history, to talking about teaching U.S. History, it’s how are you governed locally? As I have gone through, a couple of study commissions, and looking at the local government, and looking at the whole possibility, of can you make changes in local government and things like that. I feel we’re the closest to the people. You can come up to me in the grocery store, at church, wherever, and say ‘Bill I have this problem.’ Once an educator, always an educator, and that’s what I like about the commission, and making sure people understand the ins and outs that affect their daily life.
KH: Do you think local government has more of an immediate impact on local citizens because, as you say, you are much easier to approach?
BK: Oh yes. You have to remember, in local government the conflicts you have, a lot of times, are neighbors and neighbors, or, who’s infringing on someone else’s rights. The conflicts are, is it a zoning violation that’s affecting your neighborhood? Or is it a major highway that’s going through your subdivision, that’s causing chaos? Or can you get the kids to school safely in the school bus because of the road they have to go down. Then you have to look at locally, are there services? You have, what’s been talked about in Billings is, you have some problems with transient substance abuse problems in downtown Billings. You have different problems of people with mental illness not being able to get services. You have people that are indigent and are unable to get services or find housing. That’s the people that live here. That’s the people I see day in and day out. So local government is closest to the people, and that’s like a school teacher. As I’ve told people, a kid can come to school dirty, and you can give him a change of clothes, you can send him to the locker room so they can take a shower, you can clean him up, you can get someone to cut their hair, we can do all of that but if you don’t change the home environment, you haven’t changed the life of that child. That was one of the things that we looked at for years when I did the Even Start program. You had kids raising kids and no parent figure to help them. We did mentoring programs, I was chairman of the Healthy Mothers Healthy Babies for a few years, and we started a mentoring program that grandmothers would work with young moms. They needed someone to talk to. ‘Why is my baby crying all night? What do I do? It just doesn’t seem that when I’m feeding them, they’re getting enough nourishment? When can I start feeding them cereal? What do I do if the baby cries all night and has a fever?’ And so we started these mentoring programs way back in the mid-90s, and a lot of it is that’s where local government is. That’s where people live day-to-day. Washington D.C. affects us day-to-day, the president affects us day-to-day, but really, what do you want? You want food, shelter, clothing, you want your kids happy, you want an education, and you want to live in a safe environment. Where does all that happen? At the local level. I’m dealing with people day-to-day, and that’s the most fun, is being able to help people.
KH: Is that why you’ve enjoyed it?
BK: I love it. You know, as I tell people, Yellowstone County is like family to me. After being around this many years, people know me on the street; they see you on TV, they read about you in the paper. They call upon you and you’re just a friend or family. I had the honor of the chairman of the Crow Tribe invited me down and I got very much involved with the Big Sky Honor Flight, and we took World War II veterans from this community and communities across the state back to Washington D.C. to see the memorial. The one thing about it is, when we did that, these are men and women that served over 70 years ago. They gave so much. So it becomes very local. So when I went down to Crow Agency, they had four Crow talkers and these were Crow tribal members that served in World War II that taught Crow, one was on the plane, one was on the ground, and the Japanese couldn’t decipher the Crow language. And so because of that, they were able to carry out the air raids that the U.S. government had. They had four Congressional Medal of Honors for those families. The World War II veteran has now since passed, but I had the honor of presenting one of these Silver Medals, the Congressional Medal of Honor, to a family last week. It was a very high honor for me. The highlight of my life, really, has been that we’ve heard from so many veterans that they’ve wanted a final resting place. So, through all the objections and people said, ‘Oh you can never pass a mill levy for a cemetery’: we did. They said, ‘You’ll never get legislative approval’: we did, twice. We built a Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery north of Laurel. They said, ‘You’ll never get national status, a national cemetery’: we did. We dedicated it a year ago last May at Memorial Day. We have had more veterans from across the state of Montana buried in the national cemetery north of Laurel. It’s their final resting place. They put their life on the line for this country, for you and me. They needed a place. The biggest challenge for me all of these years, local government, as an educator, is that when someone says you can’t, that’s when you can. So many kids and so many people have been told no all of these years. And they’ve been told they can’t do this. That is not right. I had a counselor in high school; I had fun in high school and my grades weren’t the best, and she was very surprised I took the ACT at that time or the SAT, one of the two. ‘Why did you do this? You should go out and either get a job or look at a vo tech or whatever.’ I said ‘No, I’m going on to college.’ She said ‘Well your grades aren’t good enough.’ I said, ‘I enjoyed high school. Now I’m going to go on and get a college degree.’ And I went back after I got my master’s to see if she was still around and she wasn’t. But I wondered how many kids in high school, did she change their lives by telling them they could not go on. That’s really the force that put me into looking at a counseling degree, because my whole thing is, in local government, as an educator, you empower people to do the best they can. And you help them find a way to get there. I may be a local government official, but I’m still an educator. And we educate people day in and day out. That’s what works for me.
KH: As county commissioner over the past 23 years, what are some of the improvements that you’ve seen over Yellowstone County?
BK: One of the highlights is chairman of the Mental Health Center board, it’s been a rocky road, and to offer mental health services in this community has been huge. Getting some of the major road projects funded from the Shiloh Road, to being involved with Airport Road to doing the Bench Boulevard connector, those are huge. The veteran’s cemetery, probably the highlight of my life was having a national veteran’s cemetery here in Yellowstone County. The legacy will be here forever and it’s huge. It was dedicated last year, May of 2014. It took us 8-10 years, and looking at that, just huge. I’ve served as the Chairman of the Health and Human Services for the Association of Counties. I’ve been the President of the Montana Association of Counties. I was chair of the Rural Action Caucus for over five years for the National Association of Counties. I can go on and on. A highlight of my life was when we passed two senior mill levies. I’m on the board for the Community Crisis Center, which is much needed. We passed a mill levy for that. All of those things. One highlight is five years ago, Father’s Day and I’ll still remember it. I get a call for the governor. Gov. Schweitzer called and he said, ‘Kennedy what are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m bailing out my windows. We’ve had a heck of a storm going on and my window wells are filling up with water.’ He said, ‘I just heard the roof’s off the Metra is that true?’ I said, ‘I’ve been outside, I’m drenched, but I’ll go down there and see.’ About 15 minutes later as I hydroplaned all the way down to Metra, I was smart enough to stop because of all these downed wires, I was one of the first ones besides the deputies on the scene. We walked inside and the governor called me. He said, ‘So Kennedy what does it look like?’ I said, ‘Let me tell you. It’s raining and hailing on me and I’m standing in the middle of the Metra Arena.’ The roof was off Metra. We had over 260 tons of debris. We had a football game the night before with over 6,000 people in there. I wasn’t sure if anybody was in there that day for Father’s Day. Luckily it was Father’s Day and there was no one there. The place was destroyed. But, what we did was regrouped, and we had the place built within 10 months. We opened in April, with Elton John, over 10,000 people. We built a better arena, acoustic-wise and everything. It was a blessing in disguise, but it was a long year. People would come up and say, “I don’t recognize you without the hardhat and goggles.” But it was a long year. But look at what we got out of it. That was five years ago. But that was a highlight. There’s so many during my career that it’s been a lot of fun.
KH: Are there still improvements that you would still like to see over Yellowstone County during your tenure now and possibly a future sixth tenure?
BK: I would like to see some more funding for the mentally ill. That’s a huge vulnerable population we have. I would like to see and, it’s not the expansion, it’s just meeting the needs, of the senior population and making sure that we, the Congregate Meal program, the Meals on Wheels program, and being able to meet the needs of seniors. That’s a huge piece. Funding for roadways. You have to remember, from day to day, what affects people the most? Getting from home, to work, to school; the roadways. We need to address that as we see growth. Probably a top priority for me right now is looking at the change in county government. I’d like to see a change. I’d like to see five county commissioners non-partisan. I’m really tired of the partisanship and if Washington D.C. is going to be so polar, and the state legislature, it doesn’t have to be here. So I’d like to see a five-member commission non-partisan. I’d like to see the makeup of four year terms. I’d like to see less elected officials and elect the county attorney and the sheriff non-partisan. I’d like the focus to be, on county government, to be able to carry out, no matter what political party people are, that we just do the people’s business. Get rid of the partisanship because that’s been a downfall, and start addressing the needs in the community. A lot of times people come up to you and they say, ‘If you could change things, what would you do?’ If you go back and look at Willard Fraser in the late 60’s, and Willard Fraser said we need to build a tunnel into the heights because that’ll connect both the downtown area and the heights area, and people laughed about it. The reality is, it would have been a sure fire way of doing things. He also said, way back then, we need to build a reservoir up by Broadview. Bring the water from the Yellowstone River and then you’ll have water for the Billings Heights area, over to the Shepherd area. What are we building today? The heights area, the Shepherd area and looking at the water situation, it would have been a great way to be able to add water to that area. Every decision today should be looked at for five, ten, fifteen, and twenty years, not just for tomorrow. I’d like to see the people in this community taken care of. We’re going to have a growth rate. We see a two to three percent growth. Yellowstone County will be a quarter of a million people in less than 10 years. The city of Billings will be a quarter of a million people in less than 20 years. We are the largest community in the state of Montana and still growing. So we need to be smarter when we look at things. And we need to plan these things out, from bike trails, to good schools, to recruitment of people of jobs. So as you can see, there’s a lot of work to do, and, as I told people, I probably can’t get it all done in three years; I’ll probably have to do another term. But I’d like to see things done that affect future generations and that’s the way everything in a local government should be done. It shouldn’t be self-fulfilling, that, ‘Great, I got this building built and that’s our pride and joy.’ We need to keep building on everything. Metrapark, that was our first step. We rebuilt it after the tornado, but, we need to keep on building on it because whatever we did five years ago, now we need to look at what else do we add to it to keep on attracting people for it to be the crown jewel in this community. Remember, when people come to this community, they spend money. And when they spend money, it helps every business, and it goes in the pocket of everybody here. So those are the things, I look at a great economic future for Billings and Yellowstone County. I love being involved with the public.
KH: So I’m curious, as county commissioner, you say there is a lot of work to be done. You’re a very busy man. What do you do for fun when you aren’t working?
BK: My wife will tell you that I could be exhausted but you put me in with a group of people and it energizes me. I love people. I love to engage with people. I love to fix things. I’m probably a workaholic. I love my grandkids. I probably don’t give them enough time. I love to see things work. We started a wine shop and a deli three years ago. But, we just this May moved out and started Kennedy’s Restaurant with the wine market. You ask me, ‘What do you do for fun?’ I do a lot of catering. The difference between sitting up here and making decisions and handling people’s problems is the ability to go over to the restaurant and cook. I love to cook. I love to feed people. I come from an Italian-Irish family. I love to feed people. So, when you say, ‘What do you do for fun?’ I cook. People say, ‘Well, you’re working again.’ It relieves the stress when I see people happy and eating. When I go back to 2004 and someone said, ‘What’s the best thing that happened during your campaign in 2004?’ I said, ‘Meeting people across the state of Montana.’ They said, ‘How was that?’ And I said, ‘When sit down and break bread with people and you talk over, you win them over. Because it’s food, and family and fun. And that’s a part of it. So I like to cook, I like to feed people. I enjoy seeing people with a happy face and that they don’t look into the future and see that there’s nothing there for them. I want them to look in the future and say, ‘There’s something for me.’ That’s me.