The Billings Outpost

Tester's deep roots



For The Outpost

Sen. Jon Tester’s family farm outside of Big Sandy turned 100 this year. His maternal grandparents, Fred and Christine Pearson, homesteaded until the drought after World War I drove them back to the Red River Valley of North Dakota where they worked to keep the wolf from the door and pay their taxes. Eventually they returned to the homestead.

The Dirty ’30s were better for the family. "In the ’30s, they actually had more rain than we’ve had the last few years,” the senator said. They worked hard. “Course, they always worked hard," he said.

So did his parents. So do Jon and his wife, Sharla.

Sen. Tester has a degree in music with a teaching option. He wanted to play the saxophone, but he lost three fingers on his left hand at age 9 in a meat grinder accident. He took up the trumpet instead.

"We had a little group, the Tijuana Brass Band. When I was a senior in high school, I was planning to go to diesel mechanic school,” he said. “My teacher told me I should apply for a performance scholarship in music at the College of Great Falls. My folks thought it would be a good idea for me to diversify; I could still help my dad farm."

The music degree was, indeed, a wise choice. The senator taught elementary music for two years, part-time, which gave him and his new bride health insurance.

"Our daughter, Christine, had jaundice when she was born,” he said. “We would have had trouble paying the bills without the health insurance."

When Jon and Sharla married in 1978, the elder Testers turned over the farm and retired to Idaho.

"We lived in the old homestead for two years while we built another one," he said. The original house would have cost more to rehabilitate than building a new one. The Testers did the contracting and what work they could.

"We poured a lot of concrete and hired out the skilled stuff, the plumbing, drywall, the wiring," he said.

By 1987, many family farms around Big Sandy were going out of business, just too small to compete with big corporations. A friend suggested that the Testers get in touch with a new company in Michigan.

"We had to add value, so we went organic, and it’s a lot of fun," the senator said. Besides, they were more than ready to be done with chemicals. "The Vitavax killed my wife’s sinuses. And I would get sick for a week every year after spraying for weeds."

What’s living in our nation’s capital city like for a farm boy from Montana?

"We live in a pretty safe environment here," he said. "In Washington, you always have to have your antenna out. And it’s more compact. There are more people than in all of Montana. It’s impressive in a different way from here - the U.S. Capitol, the Smithsonian."

He regrets that, so far, he’s been too busy to be a tourist. And campaigning for re-election has revved up his time in Montana as well. Still, in the middle of Labor Day campaigning, he took a day off at home to celebrate his 35th wedding anniversary and his mother-in-law’s 75th birthday.

The Montana delegation gets to come home very weekend, another stress reliever. Jon Tester commutes about 12 hours each way every week. He leaves Big Sandy at 3:30 a.m. and arrives in Washington at 12:30 or 1 p.m. Mountain Time. "We use the time to read bills."

And the job does require a lot of reading. As a new senator, he spent hours digesting the new patent bill, only to have it abandoned. Now he waits until a bill actually gets out of committee and is scheduled to be heard on the floor of the Senate before giving it close scrutiny.

Freshman Sen. Tester had three mentors in his first term.

"Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota is a great guy, incredible. And Jay Rockefeller. We’re from different backgrounds, but we hit it off. He’s pretty low-keyed. He just works and gets things done."

Jay Rockefeller, J.D. Rockefeller’s great grandson, is the only Democrat in a long line of Rockefeller public servants. Tester also singled out Dick Shelby, a Republican from Alabama, and the ranking senator on the Senate Banking Committee.

Jon Tester, at 56, is now officially a senior. He has two words of wisdom for his children and grandchildren. "My folks were FDR Democrats. You don’t spend what you don’t have. Sharla and I have run our life on that principle."

The second, "You have two ears and one mouth. Act accordingly." 

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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