In 1970, Mrs. Vi Olson’s fifth graders didn’t learn Montana history; they celebrated it. A log cabin was constructed in the classroom. Homework included such assignments as “Write a Western Song.” And that year, for the Second Annual C.M. Russell Auction, the fifth graders at Great Falls’ Riverview Elementary participated in the first ever Charlie Russell Essay Contest.
“It was just the one class that year. Now it’s all of Cascade County,” says Norma Ashby, originator of the C.M. Russell Auction. “The prompt was: I like Charlie Russell because…”
Of the 54 entries to the inaugural contest, two were selected by a panel of judges as the most original and concise; a tie for first was awarded to Paula Egan and Bart Dzivi.
“As I recall, one of the judges was the son of Mr. Russell,” says Dzivi. “To have people who know Russell’s work intimately say, ‘This is something that resonates with me’—that’s an honor.”
Today, Dzivi practices financial and corporate law through his own California firm, but in 1970, he was a fifth grade student tasked with defending a local icon. His essay’s closing statement reads, “The reason I like Charley Russell best is that he was a fine Montanan and a real good man.”
Egan—who, since fifth grade, has become Egan-Wright—followed in the footsteps of Mrs. Olson and became an educator. She says that what she likes about that original prompt is that it asks the essayist to share something personal.
“I think a fifth grader can be honored to be drawn in to have an opinion that’s worth something,” she explains.
Egan-Wright teaches grades 2-10 in Turkey, and she says she plans to prompt her fifth grade students similarly about a Western subject.
In her 1970 essay, she responded to the prompt “I like Charlie because…” thusly; “He shared his talents with everyone.”