The Montana League of Women Voters invited six interviewees into the Missoula City Council chamber on Sept. 7, where they were tasked with delivering ten questions that could help decide who would become Missoula’s next mayor.
The smoke was heavy and the city was still mourning the loss of a revered and tenured mayor, when in stepped a young candidate who only knew how to take things the hard way.
She sat down, answered her 10 questions, and left, leaving everything on the table for a chance to succeed someone that made her feel heard in the world of Missoula politics.
While this might not have been the putting green or the UM campus or even a classroom that she would substitute teach in, Teigan Avery was ready to make her mark and show out for Missoula.
Avery is known by many as a golfer, civil servant, cancer survivor, and GoGriz.com’s 2019 Person of the Year, but what many don’t know is how she has made Missoula a home worth fighting for.
Avery was one of six mayoral candidates interviewed to become Missoula’s next leader after the passing of longtime mayor John Engen.
Avery’s accolades precede her. Not only was she a collegiate athlete and Rhodes Scholar finalist, but she has gone through hardships many college students never suffer through.
Avery’s father, Jerad, took his own life during a traffic incident on Nov. 18, 2019. The incident not only rocked the Avery family, but also took a toll on the Kalispell community, where he was a local guidance counselor at Glacier High School.
More than a year and a half before, Avery was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Recovering became a mission on its own.
Given these traumas, many would have sought a different path. But not Avery.
“Teigan’s pretty unique,” UM head golf coach Kris Nord said about his former athlete. “Right off the bat, when I started coaching golf three, four years ago, our discussions were about housing in Missoula, not golf, and how to rectify the situation.”
She doesn’t plan to stop. From working with city officials to make housing more affordable to working in classrooms as a sub, Avery has cemented her place as a Missoula resident.
And all of this wouldn’t have been the same if it weren’t for a chance to meet the late mayor in college.
After a discussion with Engen, Avery felt heard. It meant everything to someone who would later become a QUEST intern, an opportunity awarded to two Davidson Honors College members that provides both learning and engagement in the greater Missoula area.
QUEST, or Questions for Undergraduates Exploring Social Topics, is a cooperative initiative started in 2017 where the Honors College and the Office of the Mayor of Missoula pose a problem facing Missoula that groups of students have to solve. The two students who have the best solution earn an internship with the city.
“He just really inspired me,” Avery said. “Being there for 17 years, how he really cared about Missoula and demonstrated to me how you can make real change in people’s lives at the city level.”
This meeting also sparked Avery’s call for change. And, after Engen’s passing, the memory helped her understand what it takes to become mayor.
“We sat together and chatted about affordable housing and what things the University could do that would support the city at large,” Avery said. “And it was just a really great candid conversation. He made me feel very respected and he cared about what I was saying, even though I was just 22-years-old at the time.”
Throughout the interview process, it was clear that Avery was fighting an uphill battle, facing two current city council members and a former mayoral candidate.
Even though her competition was stacked, the competitor in her never backed down.
“There are two ways that you can reflect back on interviews,” Avery said. “You can reflect back and think, ‘Oh, there are all these things that I didn’t say that I wish that I said.’ Or I can reflect back and say, ‘I did the best I could with what I had.’”
While Avery was beat out by former Ward 2 council member Jordan Hess for the mayoral bid, she still believes that she gave it her all.
Every anecdote can’t describe the perseverance that is prevalent to Avery’s story, but even in losses, mayoral or not, she said she stands as a proud Missoulian and disciple of a mayor that will forever remain in the hearts of western Montana.
“I hope that other students see this and get inspired to participate in government themselves,” Avery said. “Like that classic Gandhi quote, I hope they see this and. ‘Be the change that they want to see in the world.’”