Rod and Mary Lee James

Meet Rod and Mary Lee James

A Home Away From Home

If only the walls in Rod and Mary Lee James’ house could talk, they would tell many stories of all the Orediggers who walked through the front door for over 40 years. The dinners, Sunday night football watch parties, and even a holiday or two have been highlights for so many.

Rod and Mary Lee’s ranch home in Whitehall, Montana, is filled with pictures of their family intertwined with images of Orediggers who have become honorary Jameses. Many student-athletes have been welcomed with open arms and loads of food mainly cooked on the BBQ—now a brand-new Traeger grill they’re anxious to fire up after the pandemic is over. As we sat in the living room on a brisk day in January, Rod and Mary Lee reminisced about the memories of all those who have enjoyed time with them over the years. The smiles were real as they talked about each Oredigger—they all hold an exceptional place in Rod and Mary Lee’s hearts.

Rod James, PhD, PEThe Jameses make a pretty good team. They met on a double date on January 3, 1962, at the start of the second quarter of their freshman year at Montana State College in Bozeman. As a favor to a friend, Rod agreed to a double date. “I walked onto the porch, and she answered the door,” said Rod as he looked over and gave a small smile to his wife sitting on the couch. “I knew right away that I would marry her.” The couple graduated from Montana State College on June 6, 1965—Rod in Chemical Engineering and Mary Lee in Elementary Education—and were married two weeks later. “I owe a lot of my success to Mary Lee,” Rod said. “She taught me how to study and gave me the confidence I needed.”

Rod’s early career included several industry jobs. In 1978, a faculty position opened up in the Environmental Engineering department at Montana Tech. The teaching position was what he’d always wanted, but it would cut his take-home pay in half.

Together, Rod and Mary Lee discussed the possibility and felt it was what they were supposed to do. Rod was offered and accepted the position, and together, they decided to immerse themselves in the Oredigger community, culture, and student experience

During Rod’s first semester he taught a 16-credit course load and Rod and Mary Lee attended many events, including athletics in the old gym, in what is currently the third floor of the S&E Building.

When Rod started at Montana Tech, his goal was to turn out 10 engineers better than himself. “I felt that I could have a greater impact teaching than I could working in the industry. I knew I was a good engineer, and I believed the world would be a better place if I could teach students to be better engineers than I was. I focused on real-world learning. From my first class, I changed the atmosphere to one of problem-solving.” That focus grabbed students’ attention, and Rod’s industry experience and approach engaged students during his teaching career.

Joel Nickel, a 2004 Environmental Engineering graduate, recalls Rod’s passion for learning and teaching others. “Professor James had the amazing ability to prepare his students for the real-world application of the engineering principles he taught. He instilled the lesson of thinking outside the box and rewarded those who had the creativity to try. He was known for only preparing quizzes as his tests would have taken too long to complete in our one-hour class.”

Rod and Mary Lee with students
Rod and Mary Lee with Danny Mannix,
Conner Wines, Brock Beede, and Kale Guidseth

Rod was an extraordinary faculty member. He made it a point to get to know his students—and so did Mary Lee—and get involved with everything the university had to offer. This meant lacing up his sneakers for noon basketball and serving on the athletic committee, which he did for over 30 years. Rod and Mary Lee understood going to college was much more than attending classes and taking tests. They absorbed the complete experience, which included mentoring and caring for students as family.

They provided a sense of family to many, including many out-of-state students. Brian “Flying Brian” Vaughns, from Camden, New Jersey, and Howard Batie, from Troy, Alabama, spent Christmas with the Jameses. The ranch was an eye-opening experience for another student-athlete, Robert “Boobie” Montague, from the Bronx. “I remember when Boobie was unable to go home for spring break and stayed with us. We had a cow giving birth out back,” chuckled Rod. “Boobie couldn’t keep his eyes off the process. Boobie thought the process was the most amazing thing he had ever seen.” He told the Jameses that he had never seen anything being born. He had seen life-changing experiences back home, but nothing as remarkable as the birth of the calf. Others, like Zeke Bambola, would enjoy Sundays watching football, lying on the floor, and eating until their stomachs couldn’t handle more.

The James’ dinners are legendary. “Ever since Sampson’s team, we have had players from Tech come out for dinner.” Rod chuckled. “I am a good cook, but she is better.” The special dinners at the James’ almost became a rite of passage. It was an honor to be invited and it was decided by seniors who would be included for the following year.

The experience is also generational. The McClaffertys, the Guldseths, the Huses, and many more have come through those doors. “Going to Rod and Mary Lee’s for dinner was always the highlight of my week,” noted Kale Guldseth, a 2018 Business and Information Technology graduate. “It was more than just a dinner. It created a special bond that has turned into a lasting relationship still running today. When I look back on my time at Tech and even after, I know Rod and Mary Lee’s influence on my life is a foundational aspect of any success I’ve had. They really do mean that much to all the students who were lucky enough to get to know them.”

Over the years, the Jameses have attended more games than they can count. They were a fixture in the stands and after the games to congratulate players. Rod and Mary Lee remember all the Montana Tech games, the players, the important milestones, pretty much everything. “I can remember when Kelvin Sampson came to Tech as an assistant coach. I helped convince leadership to transition Kelvin to the head coach eventually,” noted Rod. Sampson began his coaching career in 1980 as an assistant coach at Montana Tech. One year later, he became Montana Tech’s head coach, leading the Orediggers to a 73–45 record in four years, including three straight 22-win seasons during each of his final three years there. Sampson recently passed John Wooden on the all-time wins list with 639 wins and counting, as the Houston Cougars men’s basketball team’s head coach.

Rod and Mary Lee James at homeRod and Mary Lee have been great supporters of the university. They are passionate about student scholarships, athletics, and causes that improve student success. Mary Lee bakes snacks for the student-athletes and coaches for road trips. “It is fun to get to know the players on a different level and watch them enjoy themselves,” said Mary Lee. Rod added, “It’s amazing to think we have been doing this for so many years. It was just always important for us to be a part of the campus.”

Neither Rod nor Mary Lee knew what an impact Montana Tech would have on them when they joined the Oredigger team in 1978 or what an impact they would make on Montana Tech. They have impacted more lives than anyone can count. The evidence is on the walls of their home, with holiday greeting cards and pictures from games and gatherings.

So many Orediggers and their families mean so much to the Jameses. Each, you can tell, holds a special place in Rod and Mary Lee’s hearts, just as Rod and Mary Lee hold a special place in each of our hearts.

To read this story and others featured in the Spring 2021 edition of MNews, Montana Technological University's Alumni Magazine, as well as past issues click here.

Recently a donor has made possible a $1,000 scholarship that will carry Rod and Mary Lee James’ names and be awarded in each of the next five years. The scholarship will go to support the educational dreams and ambitions of Tech student-athletes.

We would like to grow and perpetuate this scholarship and Rod and Mary Lee’s legacy on our campus by endowing their scholarship. Our initial goal is to perpetuate the scholarship through a $25,000 endowment.

We invite you to give back to honor those who have given so much to Tech and to generations of Orediggers.

Make a gift to Rod and Mary Lee's Scholarship