Memorializing a Montana Work Ethic

Growing up in Choteau, Mont., Sandra Hanson Straus witnessed a genuine work ethic and generosity in her grandmother, stepfather and mother that she still remembers with heartfelt appreciation.

In honor of her pioneering family members who homesteaded in north-central Montana, Straus gave $450,000 to The University of Montana Foundation to establish the Baker-Black Scholarship.

“My grandmother, stepfather and mother worked the land, breaking ground with just a horse and plow, and farming and ranching in Teton County,” says Straus.

“Their work ethic was truly inspiring and formative for me, but it was their generosity and strength of character that I remember most dearly. This gift was my opportunity to honor and celebrate their lives and accomplishments.”

The Baker-Black Scholarship will provide full tuition to an incoming UM student for up to four years and is based on a combination of merit and need. Priority will be given to applicants who graduate from public high schools in the Teton, Glacier, Pondera and Toole counties, the area in which Straus was born and raised. The first scholarship will be awarded this spring for the 2013-2014 academic year.

“The gift comes at a time when we are intent on increasing the number of scholarships available for incoming students,” says UM President Royce Engstrom. “Sandra Straus’s generosity will benefit students for generations to come. We are very grateful for her commitment to education.”

Grace Ely Black, John Donald Baker, Norma Black Baker

Straus only attended The University of Montana for two years, then transferred to the University of Washington for an undergraduate degree in Political Science, and later attended the University of Colorado for a graduate degree. Yet, the experience made a lifetime impact upon Straus.

“I grew up in Montana,” says Straus. “My family has always been in Montana. When I went to college, it was a challenge for me to attend. Money was tight and, even in the 1970s, girls from small farming communities were seldom encouraged to go to college. I was awarded two scholarships, which made the difference in my ability to remain in school. It gives me great pleasure to now be able to help others from my part of Montana attend the University. This scholarship honors Grace Black, Norma and John Baker. It is due to their lifetimes of hard work that this gift is possible.”

Remembering her grandmother, Straus says that Grace Ely Black was born in 1896 in Illinois and married Ernest Black in 1917. Ernest and Grace moved to Montana, where they homesteaded in Teton County. Grace was active in church and community groups, spending countless hours on volunteer work and helping her friends and neighbors. She taught her family the importance of assisting others, not for any reward, but for the “good of their souls.” Grace enjoyed entertaining; Christmas parties were always at her house, and she loved the holidays.

Grace endured hard times. She kept the family homestead through the Depression, lost a son to illness in his teens and became a widow at age 54. She valued education and provided financial and emotional support, encouraging both her daughter and granddaughter to attend college.

About her mother, Straus explains that Norma Black Baker was Grace and Ernest’s daughter. She grew up on the family homestead and graduated from Kinman Business University in Spokane, Wash. She then worked for General Mills in Spokane and Great Falls, Mont., as an assistant sales manager. Norma and her first husband, Sid Hanson, took over the family farm after Norma’s father passed away. After Sid’s death, Norma married John Baker.

Norma’s business background was invaluable in managing the family farms. Her accounting and filing systems were meticulous and she could access needed information instantly. She always worked hard and, when she could, saved diligently. With careful management, she established the family on a solid financial footing. Norma followed the family tradition of volunteer work, giving generously of her time to community organizations.

Straus fondly recalls her stepfather, John Donald Baker, a lifelong farmer and rancher in the Choteau area. After his marriage to Norma Black Hanson, he treated her daughter, Sandra, as though she were his own.

John loved ranching and his cattle herd was always one of the finest in the area. He adapted his methods to the changing times, eventually giving up horses for three-wheeled vehicles. He easily managed his herd because the cattle knew him so well they followed behind him. Straus says, “John was from the ‘a man is as good as his word’ school. If John promised something you could completely count on it.”

Pictured above: Grace Ely Black, John Donald Baker, Norma Black Baker.