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Missoula elementary school changes mascot to honor smokejumpers

by Mazana Boerboom, The Missoulian (Missoula, Mont.) |

Students at DeSmet Public School in Missoula, Mont., often watched smokejumpers diving from the sky, wondering about the bravery and heroism it takes to jump from planes to fight fires.

Now they have claimed those idols as their school mascot.

“For our students to look at (smokejumpers) and say ‘that’s who we want to be,’ I think is going to change the way the students feel about themselves,” DeSmet’s Principal Matt Driessen said.

The change in mascot is coming at the same time as the school is going through a $6 million renovation. Driessen said it’s the first time the school has been updated since 1975. He hopes that making the school more modern and welcoming will build pride and a sense of community.

The school was built in 1890 and its original mascot, the Padres, which are Catholic priests, felt outdated and not all-inclusive. The public school has no religious affiliation, and the male image of a Catholic priest was one Driessen said the girls at the school couldn’t relate to.

Driessen said the students made the ultimate decision for the new mascot. Teachers had composed a list of over 100 potential mascots and let the kids narrow it down and choose what they thought best fit toward what they wanted to aspire.

“When I got the call from the school it was really humbling and flattering that they chose us as a mascot," said Dan Cottrell, the training foreman at the Missoula Smokejumper Base. "We were proud and we were excited and just really thrilled that they, you know, thought of us and gave us that opportunity.”

Cottrell has been a smokejumper since 2001, and a wildland firefighter for five years before that, but his roots are in teaching. In the '90s he taught middle school in the suburbs of Chicago, until firefighting drew him to Montana. Now he has two sons, a 10-year-old and an 8-year-old, giving him an even stronger connection to the schools and youth of Missoula.

Cottrell said the smokejumpers have been invited to have lunch with the DeSmet students and to visit classrooms once pandemic concerns have calmed down, and he’s excited by the prospect. In the past, young smokejumper trainees entering his program told him they were inspired by a tour of the base when they were a kid and it led them to seek a career in smokejumping. He hopes by connecting with the girls and boys of DeSmet that maybe he’ll be training a few of them one day.

One emphasis Driessen made on the importance of the new mascot was the ability for both girls and boys to relate to them. Cottrell said that while the smokejumpers' history of including women has been short (there hadn’t been a woman smokejumper before 1985) they now pride themselves on including women and recognizing their strengths. Out of 65 smokejumpers in Missoula, eight or nine are women. Cottrell said the women on their team add strength and creativity to their team.

Cottrell also explained that though the job may seem intimidating, they go through so much rigorous training and safety measures that it’s almost an anti-climactic moment when they do jump out of the planes. Though he said it does take a certain kind of person to jump.

The three most important characteristics of a smokejumper are to have a positive attitude, be a hard worker and be humble. Cottrell said those qualities will help a person to not only succeed as a smokejumper, but also as a person and a citizen.

“They’re smart, capable, intelligent, heroic people whose job is to protect a community or protect an area of land,” Driessen said. “They jump out of planes into fire. I mean, you think about it — boy, that takes a bit of moxie that most people don’t have.”