Pooling resources to secure a more vibrant future for Montana communities — that’s the vision and driving force behind Steve Browning’s four decades of work in the Treasure State.
During that time, the lawyer and lobbyist has established a trust fund for public lands, spurred development of local and state charitable foundations and turned a jail into a center for the arts — efforts that together have prompted hundreds of millions of dollars to be reinvested in Montana.
Browning, 73, is to be honored for his life’s work on July 9 with a public reception by the Helena Area Community Foundation, a charitable endowment Browning helped create.
“He is a wonderful Montanan,” said Linda Carlson, the foundation’s executive director. “He’s an amazing human being.”
Often Browning’s ideas have been arcane, like the tax credit he envisioned to support planned giving to Montana charitable foundations. The incentive, which he said Montana was the first state to establish, has brought in more than $200 million to permanent endowments since 1997.
Much of his work is simply behind the scenes; Browning has served on boards for organizations from St. Peter’s Hospital to the American Indian Institute.
In Helena, Browning’s mark includes the Myrna Loy Center for the Performing Arts, for the creation of which he led $1.4 million fundraising effort.
“The Myrna Loy (Center) would still be an old building an old, empty jail (without) the pure will, talent and love of that man,” said Holly Kaleczyc, a longtime friend who first worked with Browning when the two were staffers for U.S. Sen. Max Baucus in the 1970s.
The center’s namesake is also his doing. Browning traveled to New York City, a box of sweets and a dozen roses in hand, to seek the actresses’ permission to use her name. He begged on his knees, Browning said, and Loy granted it.
“I thought it was the right thing to do. She was one of America’s great ladies,” Browning said. “She was every bit as popular, probably more popular, in the ’30s as Gary Cooper. I thought, ‘Boy, it’s important people remember who Myrna Loy was.’”
Plus, he said, “It’s a wonderful name.”
Originally from Indiana, Browning moved to Montana in 1982 and partnered with Kaleczyc’s husband, Stan, to create the Browning, Kaleczyc, Berry and Hoven law firm. Since then, he has dedicated himself to putting Montana’s wealth to work for the state’s communities.
“Steve Browning believes in lifting all boats and ... he’s willing to do the heavy lifting,” Holly Kaleczyc said.
One way he has done so is by promoting the creation of community foundations, including the Montana Community Foundation, which use the interest from endowments to fund charitable projects.
When the Montana Community Foundation was established in 1989, only one or two foundations existed in the state, Browning said. Today, dozens support local communities around Montana.
Growing those endowments is one of Browning’s passions. They offer receptacles to keep Montana’s wealth local while providing benefits that stretch long into the future, he said. Responsible planning — and giving — requires such forethought, Browning added.
Organizations “have to look to the future, and they have to be able to sustain themselves and have the reserves they can call on to adapt to a changing world,” Browning said. “That has been my driving force.”
So is generating broad buy-in, which Browning said stems from a childhood memory of his parents’ decision to donate money for an organ for their church. They had enough to purchase the instrument, but his stepmother said they should only give half of the required funds.
“Then it’ll really be their organ,” Browning recalls her saying. “That had a real impact on me.”
Many of Browning’s ideas and lobbying efforts have involved shared support of projects. The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center on the Missouri River was constructed with matching funds Browning lobbied for from Congress. The Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust, established after nearly 10 years of lobbying, takes most proceeds from sales of lease holds at Canyon Ferry and Fort Peck Reservoirs to acquire right-of-way access to public lands around the state.
“He is just a person of boundless energy,” Stan Kaleczyc said.
Later this month, Browning and wife, Judy, will move away from Montana permanently, in part because of a medical condition that makes breathing at high elevations difficult for him, he said.
But the pair’s impact on Montana will last well into the future, Browning’s longtime law partner said.
“They were supporters of the community in every way. Both of them have made Helena a better place to live,” Kaleczyc said.