(Editor's note: University of Montana media release)
MISSOULA -- On the day he left Melanie Meuchel in tears and without words, William Potter wore a 2020 Griz Softball t-shirt covered with the signatures of last season’s players.
That closeness he feels with Meuchel’s Grizzlies is why he surprised her with two program-changing gifts on Monday morning.
After revealing that he had made an estate gift of $100,000 that will one day establish the William Potter Memorial Scholarship to support future softball players, he handed Meuchel a second envelope.
This one included a check for $110,000 that will help Meuchel’s program in the here and now.
It came five months after the promising 2020 softball season was canceled in March and at a time when the future continues to be uncertain for so many collegiate athletic programs and departments.
“In a year like this, when it’s difficult and everyone’s on a tight budget, the smaller programs might not get as much funding as normal,” said Potter, who was born and raised in Missoula.
“When funding trickles down to some of the smaller ones, there probably isn’t too much left. This will help (Meuchel) with whatever she wants to do with it.”
There are good starts to the work week. Then are days like Monday.
“The best Monday you could have. The best day that you could have,” said Meuchel. “It’s going to make a huge impact on our program. What William Potter was able to do for our program today was very, very special.
“We have a lot of dreams for a lot of things. To be able to continue to feel like we can do some things financially will be very nice. In this uncertain time, we can continue to give these athletes the opportunity to have many more successes.”
Potter spent his career as a truck driver, hauling chips from the mill in Superior until its closure and working for the U.S. Forest Service on road construction.
Then, every summer, fire season would arrive.
“They put everyone on fires,” he says. “We were in Idaho, Washington, all over the place. You’d work 14 days, then have two days off. You worked your butt off.
“One year we were gone in June and didn’t get back until the snow flew.”
That work schedule lightened once winter arrived. He attended his first women’s basketball game decades ago and has been a fixture at home games ever since.
“One winter I didn’t have anything to do, so I thought, maybe I’ll try to go to a basketball game,” he says. “I went to that, and that was a lot of fun.”
He attended his first softball game a few years ago. He didn’t realize what he had come across until he left the field that day.
There to meet him on his way out of Grizzly Softball Field were all the Montana players, greeting the fans and thanking them for coming out to support the team.
It was totally unexpected. He was hooked, and only a small part of it had to do with what he’d watched on the field that day.
“A lot of sporting events you go to, you’re just another fan,” he says. “Softball is different. After the games, they go out of their way to visit with you. It’s almost like an extended family.”
He would have understood had he not heard from the softball program after the disappointing way the 2020 season came to a premature end.
Then a personalized update arrived. Then another. The hand-written letter he received from Maygen McGrath over the summer? He held and showed it off on Monday morning like it’s one of his most prized possessions.
“When they couldn’t play the spring season, they could have climbed in a hole and not been heard from until next spring,” Potter says.
“Instead, they kept sending all this stuff out, letting us know what they’re doing and asking how I was doing. It’s like a big, extended family.”
What happened Monday isn’t why Meuchel runs her program like she does, with a personal touch that connects her team to the program’s alumnae and its fans in such a unique, quaint way.
Yes, she does it for the gifts, but those that are mostly intangible, enjoyed by both the giver and receiver alike, small efforts that may do no more than put a hop in someone’s step for a day. And that’s enough.
It’s an approach that welcomed in William Potter. And when he felt like his extended family might need a helping hand, he reached out to those that first reached out to him.