Stipe receives close to 1,000 well wishes on farewell tour
Brandt Stipe stands ankle deep in the cold well water seeping into his new swimming pool from a garden hose. “This is super fun,” pronounces the 8-year-old optimist.
“I want it to be fun for you,” replies his grandfather and pool purveyor, former Lake County Commissioner Dave Stipe. “Even if it takes us two days, we’ll get it done.”
For a man who acts like he has all the time in the world to fill his grandson’s swimming pool, Stipe would be the first to admit he doesn’t have much time at all. But in his characteristically plainspoken fashion, he says, “I’m really comfortable with that. I’m 65, I’ve lived a good life, and I have no fear of what’s going to happen to me.”
The Charlo rancher, who stepped down from his job as commissioner July 31, is receiving hospice care for an exceedingly rare and incurable form of skin cancer, Merkel cell carcinoma.
He says about one person a year in Montana is diagnosed with it, and he was that person four years ago when it first appeared as a sore on his lip. By then it had spread to his lymph nodes and two were removed, followed by 28 treatments of radiation, “which was much worse than the operation.”
Since then, he’s had annual MRIs of his throat and head area, looking for the almost inevitable spread. Around Christmas, Stipe began feeling rough, and by February had lost 30 pounds. He repeatedly called his physician and said, “I’m not right. I need tests.” But no one called back, possibly due to last winter’s surge in COVID cases.
Finally, he reached out to his surgeon and was admitted to the hospital where tests revealed a tumor “the size of a football” had drilled a hole in his stomach, attached to his spleen and was beginning to spread to other organs.
Instead of treatment, he opted for palliative care, and headed home to the ranch. Medications help keep the pain at bay and other drugs combat his digestive distress. “So I’m uncomfortable, but I’m not in pain,” he says.
He’s lost 70 pounds, and the painkillers cause rounds of diarrhea, constipation and vomiting. “Some days I feel invincible. Other days, I’d just as soon die.”
But giving up has never been part of Stipe’s vocabulary. He continues to take pleasure in life, especially the companionship of his daughter, Taylor, and Brandt.
When he was hospitalized in March, Taylor came home from Brigham City, Utah, where she lived with her son and boyfriend, Ned, a journeyman lineman. “She came home in March, went back, and they loaded up a few things over a weekend, sold their house and here they are,” says Stipe.
Taylor, a Charlo grad, is a geophysicist by trade. She’s able to work from home, mapping the Earth from the inside out, although the slow internet speed at the ranch is a constant frustration for her employer.
As Stipe’s only heir, she’s taking over the spread, with its cattle herd, trio of horses, an array of tractors and equipment, and all the complexities of ranching. Although she grew up there, it’s a steep learning curve.
“Ned is good with machinery and I’m OK with cows,” she says. Plus, family, friends and neighbors have been quick to lend a hand.
More importantly, “It’s home and I’ve always loved home. And it’s a pretty epic place to grow up for this little guy.”
For his part, Stipe clearly delights in having his family close. Brandt dashes in an out during the interview. At one point, he offers a headcount of insects arriving at his new pool: “There is one bee, three wasps and let’s hope it doesn’t attract any black widows,” he says.
Stipe points out that water is bound to attract insects. “You can’t live your life afraid of black widows,” he adds. “You can avoid ‘em, but you don’t have to be scared of them.”
Stipe has lived in just three houses in his life, all within a three-mile range, including the one he built himself on 80 acres northwest of Charlo. He graduated from Charlo High School and went to college, but came back to ranch with his father. “My dad said if I finished college I couldn’t come home to the ranch so I quit college because I wanted to be a rancher.”
“It’s what I always wanted,” he adds. “If it’s in your blood it’s a satisfying life, although economically it doesn’t make any sense.”
He began his first stint as county commissioner in 1993 and served two six-year terms, ending in 2005. He was elected again in 2016, and stepped down 17 months before the end of his third term.
He’ll miss the challenges and rewards of the job. “You do a hundred little things for people.”
“It’s fun being in the middle of stuff,” he adds. “One of the fascinating things is how it flows at you. You can get two phone calls 60 seconds apart and they have absolutely nothing to do with each other.”
“We’re the only level of government you can just call and get through to – the only ones who just sit there and answer our phones.”
Among the accomplishments that mean the most to him is working on senior programs with the Lake County Council on Aging. He helped establish a transportation program for area seniors in the 1990s that offers free rides to and from medical appointments, shopping and social engagements. The program has flourished and now, under the leadership of director Dara Rodda, the agency is poised to build a transportation hub and meeting room in Ronan.
“Programs like that, you do make a difference,” Stipe says.
He also believes county commissioners are some of the least partisan of elected officials. “As a whole, we just make decisions for the good of the people we serve. We can actually provide services to individuals, so it’s real rewarding.”
And frustrating too. “One of the hardest things to deal with is we collect the taxes, but we’re a really small player when it comes to spending them.” He also feels that state government often passes legislation with little regard to how it affects counties. “The laws aren’t written at all to be county friendly.”
The commissioners also clash with tribal and federal governments over jurisdictional issues. “They all want the authority to tell us what to do, but don’t want to pay for it or be responsible for it,” he says.
But as of Aug. 1, those worries are behind him. In addition to tutoring Taylor and Ned on the intricacies of irrigation, haying and tending a sizable herd of cattle, he established goals that included equipping Brandt with a four-wheeler, a trampoline, and a heifer for his 4-H project. The swimming pool was the final item on the list.
Instead of seeing his family a few times a year, they’re together every day, and Stipe clearly loves the company. “From the time he was born, Brandt has been super close with his grandpa,” says Stipe. “And I’ve always been really close with Taylor.”
He still has good days, when he can put together a swimming pool in 100-degree heat, or head out to the field and change pipes. “I’ve always enjoyed my life. That’s why I could work two jobs. Whether it was farming or being a commissioner, I’ve taken a lot of self-satisfaction out of it so it’s made me happy.
Evidence of a life well lived is the pile of cards and letters stacked near the kitchen table, numbering close to 1,000, “big ones with lots of signatures on them and little ones too. It’s been pretty incredible.” Friends far and near have called or dropped by to visit.
“Most people don’t get a farewell tour,” says Stipe. “They just up and die.”
As to what comes next, he says calmly, “We have no idea what the next step is. Nobody knows. There are people who would like to tell you they know better than the next guy, but I’m comfortable that whatever happens, happens.”
Meanwhile, he’ll continue to make the most of the life left to him. “I always wake up in a good mood,” he says. “I wake up and I want to get going.”