A year shy of having taught for 30 years, an anniversary some might hold out for, Libby High School history teacher Jeff Gruber said that now “just felt right” to retire.
He’s young enough, he enjoys “so many things,” and, well...
“I guess I’ve just been finding my mind wandering, you know,” he said. “(It’s) a little more difficult just to focus on the students and the teaching.”
Then he admits a big reason for retiring, the likely cause of his mind’s wandering: wanting to finish a Libby history book he’s been working on for 13 years.
“For me to be saying year in, year out, I hope to get the book done this year … I work on it over the summer, but summer vacations turn into a good one or two weeks, and then other things take place,” he said. “I love the research, I love the story, but I hate not having it done.”
Not that he hasn’t been working on it. In fact, what he originally expected would be a 250-page book will probably instead comprise three volumes of about 180 pages each, he said.
“I’ve gathered too much stuff (for one book),” he said.
Gruber outlined the contents: book one will cover community history, including businesses, schools and families; book two will explore the history of what he calls “Libby proper,” including homesteads, steamboats and mining; and, in book three, he’ll relate the history of the area’s logging and milling activities.
For a timeline, Gruber said he’ll begin at the discovery of gold and end with the completion of Libby Dam — not a definitive end of Libby’s history, but a practical one, he said.
“It seems like after the completion of Libby Dam we start this long, slow decline,” he said, referring to the closures of mines and sawmills and their subsequent impacts on “the community’s social and economic fabric.”
He believes this latter aspect of Libby’s history “is a different story” to tell.
Acknowledging that “a number of people have come in and defined us by the asbestos tragedy,” Gruber said he’s “not going to dwell on it.”
“I’m going to treat it (asbestos) as just a chapter, like the Libby Dam Project, like the discovery of gold,” he said. “I’m going to try and be as factual as I can.”
Gruber said his books will fill a void, for Libby is “(written) history poor.” He said a writer’s group has produced books about families or individuals, and the Libby Women’s Club wrote a history book as a community service project in the 1920s.
Gruber hopes to self-publish the first book within a year, with each remaining volume coming out within a one- or two-year cycle after that.
Gruber’s own history with Libby began at birth. A multi-sport athlete, he graduated from Libby High School in 1984. He then moved away, first to attend Western Montana for five years and then to cut his teeth teaching in tiny Judith Gap High School for three years.
His first year in Judith Gap, Gruber met another first-year teacher, Doreen, whom he married later that year. After another two years they decided to “look for greener pastures,” Gruber said, though not knowing where.
It happened that Doreen, an elementary teacher, found a job teaching in Libby starting Fall 1992. Gruber followed and found work as a substitute teacher and in the Forest Service until he was hired on to teach history full-time in Fall 1993.
Over his career instructing freshman about world geography and Montana history, Gruber has developed a “stick to the basics” teaching philosophy that’s backed by a strong belief “that all students can be intelligent.”
“It takes two things,” he said. “They’ve got to be curious about the world around them. And the second thing is, (they) have to be organized.”
To instill curiosity in his students, Gruber shares what fascinates him most about history: “good stories,” “pride in community” and “admiration of people doing great things,” he said.
“It’s kind of a cliche, but being able to understand the future by understanding your past is such an important attribute,” he said.
To teach his students organizational skills, Gruber has them maintain a notebook containing their notes, assignments and the “bell ringer” questions that kick off every class.
“Even before the bell rings, I want the kids busy,” he said. “When they come in, instead of them milling about, talking to their friends, I expect them to answer the (bell ringer) questions in five minutes.”
The questions are displayed on an overhead projector and relate to that day’s topic, Gruber said.
“I have them for 47 minutes and I want them to work from bell to bell, so this helps get started without me,” he said. “I’m trying to teach them just to be organized and clear.”
Gruber is also trying to teach that history does, in fact, repeat itself — an important thing to keep in mind no matter how extraordinary current events might seem.
“I think people look at current events and they just think lightning strikes, (that) things happen because of just happenstance,” he said. “But God no, if you know your history it’s just such a wonderful guide. It’s comforting, these things have happened before.”
Gruber’s involvement with Libby history has extended beyond his high school classes and his books project. He once wrote a column for The Western News, and he’s volunteered for years at the Libby Heritage Museum.
Laurie Mari, museum board member and exhibit chair, credits Gruber with getting her involved at the museum after she and her family moved to Libby in 1997. The Maris met the Grubers at church, and Gruber taught their daughter, Donna.
“He’s a huge asset to me specifically, because I do 90 percent of research requests,” she said. “He’s my go-to photo guy, (because) he knows our collection so well” — an especially valuable skill, she said, because not all of the museum’s collection has yet been entered into the database.
Gruber is also a member on the museum’s nine-person accessions committee, which evaluates each donated item to determine whether there is a place for it in the museum’s collections.
“He’s the busiest guy I know,” Mari said. “But it’s a rare occasion when he can’t help me out.”
In what Libby High School yearbook advisor and teacher Sarah Barrick described as “a happy coincidence” in light of Gruber’s retirement, the 2018 yearbook was dedicated to him.
“We did not know that Mr. Gruber was retiring when we chose him as the person to whom we would dedicate this year’s yearbook,” she said by email.
Because the yearbook theme was “Our Roots Run Deep,” Barrick said the students wanted to choose someone who had grown up locally.
“We did have a couple of other nominees, but once the kids nominated Mr. Gruber, it was kind of unanimous,” Barrick said. “They know that he is writing the history of Libby, and they know how strongly he feels about our community and about the roots that he has within the community.”
Gruber’s roots here have expanded to include his daughter Emma, who’ll be a senior at Libby High next school year. He cites that, and her many activities, as other reasons behind his decision to retire.
“It’s going to be nice to be able to, without taking (time) off, just follow her around for senior year,” he said — also noting that “when she graduates and goes off to college” his schedule will be freed further to work on his books.
“I feel deep in my heart that Libby has got a very interesting history and I just want to tell that story,” he said. “For whatever reasons, it seems to just be falling on me to do that.”
“This dang story (of Libby) needs to be told, because it’s a good story.”