Fern Hart dies

Fern Hart
Fern Hart

From her obituary published in the Missoulian on Jan. 29, 2023 . . .

Fern Hart, former Missoula Clerk and Recorder/Treasurer and County Commissioner, died on Tuesday, January 17, 2023 in St. Patrick Hospital. She was 94. Fern was born Juanita Fern Morgan in Amarillo, Texas. She went by her middle name throughout her personal and professional life, and it was certainly as Fern that she was known during her 54 years in Missoula. Fern’s parents, Gertrude and W.T. “Shy” Morgan, had deep roots in West Texas, where Shy headed the Collingsworth County road department and drove the big Caterpillar maintainers to keep the Caprock roads clear. Later, he was the foreman of the Caterpillar repair shop in Amarillo, supervising the big equipment serving the roads of all the Panhandle.

Fern graduated from Amarillo High School in 1946. She attended McMurry College in Abilene, Texas, where she graduated in 1950 with a B. A. in Spanish and a B. A. in Women’s Physical Education. Fern’s plan to become a missionary in Latin America was sidetracked when she met her future husband Ray Hart through their mutual involvement in The Methodist Church. After a stint of working as Director of Christian Education in a Methodist Church in New Mexico, Fern moved to Dallas where Ray was pursuing a degree in theology at Southern Methodist University. Fern also attended SMU Graduate School, earning an M. A. in Philosophy with High Honors in 1953.

Fern and Ray married on September 8, 1951 at the 10th Street Methodist Church in Amarillo. Fern taught physical education and trained professional women tennis players while Ray earned a doctorate in philosophy of religion at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Later, when Ray was teaching at Vanderbilt University in Nashville Tennessee, two events crystallized Fern’s twin passions for progressive local government informed by inclusive and affirmative religion. She joined the League of Women Voters during the politically divisive 1960s to address the role of grassroots democracy, and she resigned from the local Methodist Church because it refused to integrate African Americans.

From the beginning of her five plus decades in Missoula, Fern devoted herself to local, city, and county government. The Hart family moved to Missoula in 1969, where Ray and his colleague Bob Funk founded the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Montana. Fern led the League of Women Voters efforts to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, and worked for the successful passage of the new Montana Constitution. She co-chaired the League’s work for the Missoula City-County consolidation effort as well as serving on the City-County Planning Board and on the County Bicentennial Commission.

Fern first ran for public office in 1978 as Clerk and Recorder/Treasurer. She never lost an election during her entire political career and eventually served three terms in that position. Fern won respect across the political spectrum for her listening skills, accepting responsibility for problems, peripatetic management style, as well as referring to and treating her constituents as customers. She dragged the county’s land registration and accounting systems kicking and screaming out of the 19th century and into the 20th.

After two years out of the political arena, Fern ran for Missoula County Commissioner and served for one 6-year term. As the swing vote on an all-female commission, she was instrumental in forging compromises on a new Missoula Urban Comprehensive Plan and related zoning and subdivision amendments that were remarkable as early approaches to sustainable growth in the Missoula Valley. Fern was most proud, however, of her unflagging efforts to preserve Missoula’s historic downtown area, the results of which can be seen to this day.

Religion remained integral to Fern’s daily life until the very end. She joined and financially supported the University Congregational Church in Missoula. As the church’s Moderator, Fern lead a multiyear conversation about sexuality, gender, race, and inclusivity. Through her leadership, her church became the first in Montana to welcome and affirm all people irrespective of their identity.

Survivors include her husband Ray, her sons Morgan (Patti) and Bracken (Victoria), and her long-time caregiver Libby Baker, to whom the Hart family will be forever grateful. A gathering to celebrate Fern’s life in the summer or fall is in the planning process. Memorials may be made to Montana Public Radio.