Jim Haslip was “Mr. Haslip” to his students when he taught at Helena junior and senior high schools.
He was “6-7 Mike” to firefighters when he flew above them in the plane with those tail numbers, directing them to wildfires.
He was “W7CK” when he was operating his ham radio, conversing with hundreds of people throughout the world.
And he was “Dad” to his four children, who recall a man with a quick wit, who would drop notes into their gardens when he was patrolling the skies, filled with promises of ice cream or other treats once he landed.
“We had our differences, but everyone respected Jim,” said Sonny Stiger, a fire behavioral analyst who knew and worked with Haslip since 1977. He’s quick to note that their differences were professional disagreements, like whether to let a fire burn that wasn’t threatening structures or to put it out, and that Haslip wasn’t shy about arguing his point.
Despite those differing perspectives, Stiger enjoyed working with Haslip.
“He knew this country like the back of his hand and guided almost all of our crews to fires in the Helena forest,” Stiger said. “He got them in safely and made sure they were OK before he left.”
So when Haslip died Aug. 8 from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare, degenerative, invariably fatal brain disorder, he was given a hero’s sendoff, beginning with a standing-room-only crowd at the Plymouth Congregational Church.
“There were all the firefighters and teachers and students,” said one of his daughters, Karen Chadwick. “One guy called the funeral home from Texas; he is a truck driver — we don’t know who he was — but he wanted to be here for the funeral because he had mom and dad for teachers.”
Haslip was a born-and bred-East Helenan, who played center field for the Smelterites and set running records as a student at Helena High School in the 1950s. He went to college in Missoula, where he met Delores George and fell hard for her. Haslip was drafted shortly after World War II ended, however, and Delores’ father wouldn’t let them marry until he returned from his tour in Germany.
It was in the Army that Haslip learned to operate radios and started a lifelong love of communications, and was proud of being the fastest with Morse code in his battalion. In later years, he used those skills to aid search and rescue groups, as well as the Race to the Sky and the Governor’s Cup.
“My friends would come over and talk to people all over the world with him, and wouldn’t want to play with me anymore,” Chadwick said with a laugh.
When Haslip returned to Montana, he and Delores married, and he taught in St. Regis and Absarokee before taking a job at Helena Junior High, then at Helena High, where he taught math and science, and also coached sports.
Chadwick said he truly enjoyed the students and always had a few tricks up his sleeve.
“What he would do is put together a seating chart on the first day of school, then the next day he would move his desk around to the opposite side of the room, so the kids who took seats in the back were now next to him,” Chadwick said. “Over the years he ended up teaching what they called ‘decelerated’ kids, where their parents thought there was something wrong with them. … He was able to change some of those kids around.”
It was during this time, in 1960, that Haslip took up fire spotting in the summer, earning the nickname of Helena’s “eye in the sky.”
“He was incredible at finding smoke coming out of the middle of nowhere. It was almost a game for him to find how many he could in a summer,” said Ken Mergenthaler, Eastgate Fire Department chief and former lead dispatcher at the Helena Interagency Dispatch Center. “He had a good sense of humor, but when he was in the air he was all business.
“He knew where trails were that nobody knew about, so he could get the firefighters either near or right on the fires. He always took his time and made sure they were safe before he he went onto the next fire. And he knew enough about fires to know when they could be caught and when they couldn’t.”
Haslip also was an air tactical group supervisor, so on big fires his pilot would circle above air tankers dropping retardant, helicopters dropping buckets of water and lead planes while Haslip made sure they didn’t crowd one another.
“He’d become the air traffic controller for the incident, to keep a safe separation. It’s not an easy job to accomplish,” Merganthaler said, laughing at how laid-back Haslip could be during tense situations.
“I’d ask, ‘Jim, do we need to get retardant on that?’ and he’d say, “If it was up to me, and retardant was available, I would get it,’” Merganthaler said. “It was never a yes or no answer, just that it was up to you. I’d tell him, ‘Well, Jim, I can’t see the fire. What do you see?’”
Although Haslip had retired from teaching, he was looking forward to his 50th year as a fire spotter in 2010. However, a few months ago he thought he had a stroke or some other kind of health problem. Eventually he was diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob, which causes blindness and weakness in the extremities due to holes developing in the brain. He died shortly afterward.
“It strikes one in a million people, and my mom said he truly was a one-in-a-million person,” Chadwick said softly.
After his funeral last week, a procession led by a dozen fire trucks made its way from the church to the cemetery at Fort Harrison. As the mourners gathered around, their attention was turned skyward, as plane number 6-7 Mike slowly circled the sky one last time.
The plane banked into a turn, just like the pilot would do so Haslip could see the fire out of his window, then flew into the distant sky.
“He will be seriously missed,” Mergenthaler said.
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or firstname.lastname@example.org