Alumni 'Butte Rats' Nurture Lifelong Friendships

Don Nelles and Ed Renouard

March 10, 2014

(Above) Don Nelles (left) and Ed Renouard

Presidential Pardon in Hand

By Peter Tormey

LAS VEGAS, Nev.  — The "Butte Rats," a group of fun-loving Gonzaga University alumni from mostly Butte, Mont. who graduated from 1958 through the early 1960s, gather each year at the West Coast Conference Basketball Championships here to tell tall tales and support the Zags.

The Butte Rats had so much fun that some wondered — a half-century later — if they might still be on probation.

Don Nelles ('59), from Missoula and therefore an adopted member, said he asked Gonzaga President Thayne McCulloh to visit the Rats two years ago and consider dispensation.

"I said to Thayne, 'Some of us got off to a slow start when we started college our freshman year and we were put on probation. I don't think some of us are off probation and maybe shouldn't be,'" said Nelles. "So Thayne McCulloh comes out with this big parchment paper with the 'whereas' and 'wherefore' and 'on behalf of all' and gave us an official pardon."

The group keeps a replica of the pardon on hand for get-togethers.

"We've stayed close our whole lives and it's kind of cool. We've been out of school for 55 years," said Ed Renouard, a 1959 Gonzaga mechanical engineering alumnus who went on to a long career with Boeing. "It's kind of a reunion. We enjoy going to the games but we enjoy being with each other even more."

The group, which descended from Gonzaga's Montana Club, has gathered at the WCC Tournament each of the past six years here. Before that, they gathered since 1999 at the various WCC Tournament sites.

"We're the ones who built that first Grotto at Gonzaga before they built the new Grotto," Renouard said. In fall 2012, Gonzaga dedicated the new Grotto between St. Aloysius Church and College Hall. The Grotto was created by the Class of 1986 and spearheaded by friends and business partners Steve Ossello and Chris Wrolstad. A gift from Ossello's parents, Guy and Madeline Ossello of Butte, was instrumental to the project. Guy Ossello also is a proud member of the Butte Rats.

The Butte Rats were known for their skill and savvy in intramural football, basketball, baseball and extracurricular hijinks.

One time, Renouard recalls, a classmate from Idaho returned after having attended smoke-jumping school in Missoula where he was taught how to jump out of airplanes to fight fires.

"He was showing us all how to land so you don't break your legs," Renouard said. "So we all tried it — (jumping) from the ledge of the second floor of DeSmet Hall. It was just a lot of clean fun and we've been forgiven."

Nelles remembers his late classmate and former Gonzaga Vice President Harry Sladich, from Anaconda, as a group leader. Sladich's room in DeSmet served as the Rats' headquarters.

"He was different because, first of all, the Jesuits liked him," said Nelles. "We didn't trust the Jesuits and vice-versa. Harry liked them, so he was our intermediary. But what the Jesuits didn't know is that Harry kept the beer for DeSmet Hall under his bed."

Fun, their calling card, has kept these friends connected for life.

"The best thing about this group of men and women is that they have been very successful captains of business and industry but they remember who they are," said Jim Peterson ('60), from Livingston. "You can't high-hat with this group, they knew you way back when."

The Rats believe they had some divine intervention at times for all to graduate on time from Gonzaga. Mike Harrington ('62) was the nephew of the dean of men, Fr. Frank Harrington, S.J.
"My uncle used to stay up all night praying that he didn't have to throw me out of school," Harrington said. "We were Gonzaga's only fraternity — 'Beta Rodent.' "