A weird thing happened the other day. While searching through old emails trying to find my internet banking login ID, I stumbled on a message from my days as the arts editor of the Montana Kaimin. It was a reply from one of my new reporters at the time, Melissa Weaver, with a preview of Daniel Tosh’s spring 2008 Missoula appearance included. If I remember correctly, the Tosh piece was the first one she wrote for me. I hadn’t read it since it first went to print, hadn’t really even thought about it. She wrote much better articles that semester, and I left the section in her hands when I graduated. But the timing of the discovery seemed too coincidental to let slide without mention.
One year ago tomorrow, Melissa died in a plane crash just a few miles northwest of Missoula. She’d been working the cops and courts beat for the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell for several months, but intended to quit and go back to school. Journalism just wasn’t what she wanted to do anymore, she’d tell me during occasional trips down to Missoula. So it was in those last weeks of her Kalispell career that she took off for what, based on media reports later, was supposed to be a short flyover of Glacier National Park. Melissa knew a guy who knew a guy who had his pilot’s license. Four of them went up, pilot included, in a 1968 Piper Arrow on Sunday June 27, 2010 (the attached link is the final National Transportation Safety Board report on the crash). They were declared missing later that evening when Melissa and her coworker, business reporter Erika Hoefer, failed to show up to a barbecue.
I first heard the news Monday morning at my desk. As a journalist, I tend to keep my eye on Montana-based newsfeeds while going about my various tasks on any given day. I remember catching glimpses of a missing plane story, but they didn’t include names, I was working diligently on deadline, and to the best of my knowledge at the time, Melissa was at her desk at work. I missed the report that included Melissa’s name among the missing. My coworker Jessica didn’t. So when she turned to me and said, “Alex, you knew Melissa Weaver from the J-School pretty well, didn’t you?” I went cold.
My friendship with Melissa started on the Kaimin all those years ago, shortly after I hired her for the spring semester. I’d see her in the office working hard on an artist profile, or she’d drop into the newsroom late on a Tuesday or Thursday night to go over my edits. We had Kaimin parties, of course, and we’d often hit the bars after a long night of putting the paper to bed. But I didn’t really start hanging out with Melissa until after graduation, during my months of unemployment when any adventure was a welcome break from the monotony of “Arrested Development” marathons and here-and-there music reviews for the Indy. I found out quick that if you wanted adventure, you called Melissa.
We hung out more and more frequently during Melissa’s senior year. I met her boyfriend Bret, helped her with arts page problems, walked her through the awarding of the annual Dennies–an “Office”-inspired joke at University of Montana President George Dennison’s expense started by my last editor, Pat. I’m fairly certain she’s responsible for buying the shot that led to me dancing on the bar between two leggy blondes at the Snow Creek Saloon in Red Lodge. And, if hazy memory serves, Melissa spent the rest of the weekend laughing at me. It’s one of the fondest memories I have of a ski trip, and I have Melissa to thank for it.
All that is the long way of explaining why, after Jessica’s newsfeed bombshell, I didn’t get much work done. I eventually went into my editor’s office and told him I was having a hard time focusing. He made it clear that, even if we were to cover the missing plane story, I wouldn’t be involved. I went home and proceeded to follow every update on newspaper websites, broadcast stations, Twitter and Facebook. Old Kaimin friends now living in different parts of the country began texting me for intel. We called each other, talked, kept each other thinking positive thoughts for Melissa and the other lost passengers. Bill encouraged me to get some sleep, though he knew none of us would. Whitney soothed me through a near-nervous breakdown. Allie promised to cover the religious front and keep Melissa in her prayers. Mike met with me at the bar, where we traded stories about Melissa, got drunk, and asked the bartender to turn the channel to local news.
All this persisted for two more days. Since my job already entails following and aggregating news, I found myself in the best position to keep everyone else up to date on the massive search and rescue effort. The details were chilling: boat searches of the Flathead River, aerial searches of the National Bison Range. Their flight over Glacier had apparently turned into a scenic trip south, where the plane dropped off the radar somewhere near Moiese. After work on Tuesday, I went home and packed all of my backcountry gear with the intent of heading to the bison range the following afternoon. I had a week off for the Fourth of July, and rather than go to my cabin for a family reunion, I vowed I would join the search effort for Melissa. I never did. By the time I got maps for the area and got home to pick up my pack, they’d found the plane. I sat waiting for word on survivors. When it came, I began the painful task of calling friends across the country to break the heart-rending news. Some wanted to talk; others simply broke down and promised to call back later. I grabbed a box of tissues and drove up Highway 200 for my cabin.
The drive to Choteau usually only lasts three hours max. I turned around twice, uncertain about my call to leave Missoula. I pulled over numerous times. As the sun set and the miles ticked off slowly, I thought about the last time I saw Melissa. Two weeks before the crash, she’d asked me if I could drive down to Billings and go to a wedding with her. She hated to ask, and kept telling me it was okay if I didn’t want to come, that she understood I knew no one in the wedding and that it was probably too much to ask a friend to sacrifice a weekend for a few drinks and some free cake. But I’d bailed last minute on a ski trip she and I had planned for Whitefish earlier in the year, so I told her I owed her. Honestly, I needed to get out of Missoula for a weekend, and the promise of hanging out with Melissa was never something I thought twice about. She was a bridesmaid, so we didn’t get to hang out much at the reception. But I ate dinner with her mom Kathy and her dad Dan, two of the loveliest people I’ve ever met. And as I talked with them about medical marijuana, about college, about the Kaimin, about jobs and journalism and drinking and all the things you don’t normally talk about with adults you don’t know well, I started to realize why Melissa was such an amazing person.
Later on the night of the wedding, Melissa and I went out for some fresh air. I asked her if she was still thinking about law school. She’d told me numerous times that the Inter Lake job wasn’t a last-ditch attempt to make journalism work. It was about deciding whether or not the legal profession held as much appeal as she’d first thought. She said it hadn’t, that she was still weighing her options. I told her that whatever she decided to do, she’d be great at it. In typical Melissa fashion, she rolled her eyes.
Melissa still comes up in conversation all the time. Last fall, three friends and I made a nightmarish trek to the crash site to pay our respects with a bottle of champagne–the same brand Melissa once pulled out of her purse during a matinee of “Bruno.” From the first turn up the wrong drainage in the car to the miles of intense bush-whacking and constant “where the hell are we?” map consultations, we all agreed that Melissa would have laughed through every footfall of our foolhardy quest. I occasionally still see her at our regular haunts, hear her voice in someone else’s suggestion to buy a Slip ‘n Slide. Moments like that are almost enough to make me forget she’s gone, because I know that in some ways she’s still here. Nothing else could explain my Melissa-style reaction to me choking up when–nearly a year to the day since the crash–I find an article dating back to when I first met her: I rolled my eyes. Here’s to you, Melissa. Always in our thoughts, always with a smile.
The Next Dane Cook?
by Melissa Weaver
A comedian some call “the next Dane Cook” is coming to Missoula this Saturday.
Daniel Tosh, a Comedy Central veteran, will be performing at the University Theatre at 8 p.m. on January 26. This is but one stop during his Completely Serious comedy tour.
“He is funnier than Dane Cook, in my opinion,” said House Productions owner Cody Myers. According to Myers, Tosh’s comedic style has a “dry wickedness” to it, as he is a fan of telling unpredictable jokes that keep audiences off guard.
“What makes him unique is that he starts out with a joke with mass appeal and keeps going and going until only like six people get it,” said Myers. He said that this type of humor geared towards an informed audience makes Tosh popular among college students.
Tosh is currently touring colleges around the country, and is their number one requested comedian. He enjoys going places he has never been too, said Lily Oliver, the assistant to Tosh’s personal manager, which is why Montana seemed an ideal place for a show.
Tosh has appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman, the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel Live and Comedy Central, among other television appearances. His debut DVD/CD “True Stories I Made Up,” will be released this November through Comedy Central Records.
Tickets are still available. The first 200 students with a valid Griz card will be charged $15 per ticket. Otherwise, the prices for students are $25 per ticket in advance or $32 per ticket the day of the show. For tickets or more information call 243-4051 or visit http://www.griztix.com.
Competition for Dane? Only time will tell.