Three years ago, after Robert Staffanson penned his award-winning memoir at the ripe young age of 94, veteran journalist Ed Kemmick from Billings posed this question after giving the book a rave review: “Is Staffanson the most interesting man in Montana?” he asked.
Staffanson’s three-part tome, “Witness to Spirit: My Life With Cowboys, Mozart & Indians,” chronicled his life as a rancher’s son who underwent several different phases of reinvention.
Born in Sidney astride the badlands and prairie country of the Lower Yellowstone River, raised on a cattle ranch in the mountainous Deer Lodge Valley on the other half of the state, then trained in music at the University of Montana, Staffanson, who would become known as “the cowboy conductor,” was on an unlikely trajectory.
Upon college graduation, he founded The Billings Symphony, was subsequently tapped, based upon the recommendation of one of the most famous conductors in the world, to lead the Springfield Symphony in Massachusetts, and then, in the prime of his career, he gave it all up as he entered midlife to embrace the role of activist.
Returning home to his beloved West, he played a catalytic role in establishing the American Indian Institute while becoming a tenacious and formidable advocate for native rights, cultural preservation and imploring society to recognize the ancient wisdom of indigenous people.
Staffanson died Saturday, April 27, 2019 at age 97 in Bozeman, and in the days since condolences have poured in from across the country. A memorial service is being planned for June 8, 2 pm at First Presbyterian Church in Bozeman and it will be accompanied by a traditional ceremony conducted by some of the many native elders who are his closest friends.
Staffanson came into the world on Nov. 11, 1921, the son of parents George and Julia Staffanson. He was the brother of Gladys Staffanson Lutticken, who died in 2011.
He credited his father with being “an agrarian man of the earth” who was good with animals and filled the space of their modest farm house playing live fiddle music—the nucleus for Bob learning to master several different instruments. As for his mother, she taught him that cowboys need not be stoic or model their behavior after fictitious Hollywood stereotypes, that the image of rugged individualists was a myth, and that what really held rural Western society together, transcending divisions, was a broader sense of community and citizenship based on mutual respect, good manners, honesty, integrity and understanding that spirituality comes in many forms.
As Staffanson wrote in the first line of his memoir, he loved horses. The first steed he ever rode, at age 4, was a pony ironically named “Injun” that his father had purchased from traders with the Salish-Kootenai. Even as a nonagenarian, he would weep recounting his friendship with the horse, recalling the day it had to be euthanized as it succumbed to infirmity in old age.
Staffanson spent his coming-of-age-years on the family cattle ranch outside Deer Lodge. On weekends during his younger years, he shed his blue jeans and cowboy hat and performed with bandmates who traveled from town to town as favorites on the dance hall circuit.
In 1945, Staffanson married his hometown sweetheart from Deer Lodge, Frankie Ann Smith, and, because of that alone, he always considered himself “the luckiest man on earth.” They were married for 71 years.
After graduating from the University of Montana, a headstrong Staffanson went to Billings and established its first symphony, stubbornly defying critics who claimed that enough talent could never be harnessed there to do the works of great composers justice.
It was during a trip back east, amid a clinic hosted by the eminent Eugene Ormandy, the Hungarian-American violinist and conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, that his life took another dramatic turn. In a telltale moment captured in his book, Ormandy took a liking to the thirtysomething Staffanson, whom he fondly dubbed “the cowboy conductor from Montana.”
Impressed by the kid’s spirit, Ormandy opened doors for Staffanson, helping him land a prestigious post as conductor of the Springfield Symphony in the Berskshires of western Massachusetts. During his decade and a half tenure there, he became friends with many of the giants, including Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Fiedler.
“Ann was active in organizations supporting the Springfield Symphony as well as others in civic affairs. She hosted dinners for visiting artists and was helpful in many ways to the musicians of the Springfield Symphony,” he recalled. “It didn’t hurt to have the most beautiful, charming woman in the world as your wife.”
Every summer during symphony recess and when they weren’t traveling in Europe, the Staffansons returned to Montana and enjoyed taking road trips to places where history happened.
On one such homecoming, Look magazine featured a long story about “the cowboy conductor.” Half his life ago, Staffanson had grown increasingly appalled by the marginalization of indigenous people and he, a lifelong student of tribal lifeways. “Any conscientious human who becomes awakened to injustice cannot pretend it does not exist once he or she becomes aware,” he said. “As decent people, we can’t close our eyes. My conscience, as a Christian, wouldn’t let me do that, but this is a value embraced by any religion.”
Given his affinity for history, Staffanson worked briefly as assistant director at the then Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. Around this time, he fell ill and almost died while hospitalized in Billings. The medication he was prescribed ended up damaging his audio faculties, resulting in a hearing loss that over the years deepened and ultimately reached 95 percent, forcing him to communicate by reading lips.
While struggling with this near-debilitating setback that stole away his most perceptive sense—listening—that had allowed him to thrive as a conductor, Bob and Ann welcomed their daughter, Kristin Staffanson Campbell, whom they considered “the brightest light in their lives.”
Resettling first in Helena and then in Bozeman, Staffanson acted on his frustration of not being able to help his native friends by laying the groundwork for the American Indian Institute, which is still operating today under the dynamic direction of young native leaders. Along the way, Staffanson learned a humbling lesson: the indigenous community, he said, had deep and justifiable distrust when it came to white people carrying forth a savior complex promising to aid Indians in their plight.
Initially, he encountered fierce criticism from activists in the American Indian Movement who questioned his motivation. Not only did Staffanson receive reticence from native leaders who eventually came to trust him, but his advocacy for indigenous rights brought derision from some of white people he knew.
Staffanson savored friendships he cultivated in the classical world, with musicians, other conductors, their families, and innumerable fans who turned out to hear performances of his orchestras. But he held a special place in his heart for the thousands of native people he met, not only from North America but around the globe. Be it elders or young people, he stood in awe and ever-deepening humility of the time-tested knowledge accrued by those who lived in tune with nature.
“There’s this perception that people love the image of the cowboy,” Staffanson said. “Yes, it’s true, but I can tell you the world loves Indians more. Everywhere we went, I saw how well regarded indigenous people from this continent were. They were viewed embraced as the first real authentic Americans.”
The Lakota have a phrase Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ which means “all are related.” Staffanson said every tribe has its own version. “They see the harmony. They see the way the world fits together and is united in ways that are unfortunately invisible to many of us,” he said recently. “They see the sentience and interdependence between humans and all living things. There is so much we can learn. My own understanding is only beginning.”
Terry Tempest Williams wrote after reading a draft of Staffanson’s book, “Robert Staffanson has created a story that honors his own evolution from cowboy to symphony conductor before abandoning wealth and fame to work with indigenous people and learn the ways of wisdom. This is a book that reminds us our lives are blessedly made of stories. Gratitude is the word that remains after reading Witness to Spirit.”
Staffanson is survived by his daughter, Kristin, son in law Michael Campbell, and grandsons Bryan Robert Campbell and Cody Michael Campbell, all of Bozeman.
Staffanson greatly loved his nieces, nephews, and treasured friends (too many to list here) and he relished the innumerable others with whom his long life intersected. To learn more about Staffanson, read his book. To support the ideals and values he championed, he would like you to consider making a contribution to the American Indian Institute.