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The angel of Bitterroot Valley

Jim Schueler
Jim Schueler

Business grad finds the true reward
is in giving back

By Janice Wisner

When Jim Schueler, the founder of Rocky Mountain Log Homes in Hamilton, Mont., attended UW-Eau Claire in the late 1960s, he didn’t look or act much like an angel. He studied business administration, joined Phi Sigma Epsilon fraternity, skied whenever possible and generally enjoyed college life.

Today Schueler still hasn’t sprouted wings. But his actions on behalf of kids in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, as well as his support for UW-Eau Claire’s newly created Blugold Angel Fund, identify him as someone who believes in getting involved in the lives of people who need some extra help.

Schueler graduated in 1970 and immediately headed west to work in a Denver bank and be close to the mountains. Banking didn’t satisfy his entrepreneurial spirit, so he moved to Steamboat Springs and started a drive-up liquor store with a fraternity brother, Mike West, who received a bachelor of science degree in business administration in 1969. A year later they sold the business and set out to find a less developed place to put down roots. They settled on Hamilton, 45 miles south of Missoula, where they both still live.

“When Jim arrived in town, he was a long-haired hippie looking for work,” recalled his former classmate Jim Stewart, founder of Seattle’s Best Coffee and a part-time Hamilton resident. “He went to his current and longtime partner, Harold Mildenburger, looking for a job selling Chevrolets. Harold wouldn’t hire him. Jim kept returning, so finally, out of desperation, Harold gave him a piece of real estate to sell that had been on the market forever. He thought that would be the last of good old Jimmy, but not so. He sold the property and for a fabulous price as well. The rest is history.”

In 1974 Schueler started Rocky Mountain Log Homes, one of the nation’s largest and most successful log home companies, with nationwide and international sales. The company designs, develops and sells multimillion-dollar log structures and has received hundreds of national design and marketing awards.

“We built Rocky on the belief that a log home is first and foremost a very personal thing,” Schueler said. “We believe the home ought to reflect the unique style of the owner and fulfill his or her individual needs and desires.”

A longtime real estate broker, Schueler co-founded a 2,600-acre gated golf community east of Hamilton with financial expert Charles Schwab. Known as the Stock Farm, the development includes approximately 125 home and cabin sites and 1,600 acres of common area. It provides its residents with a private 18-hole Tom Fazio golf course, an equestrian center, hiking trails and trout fishing on the Bitterroot River.

“What I would say about Jim is that he is very creative,” said Stewart, who owns a cabin at the Stock Farm. “He could sell ice cubes to an Eskimo at the North Pole along with a freezer to keep them in. I might add that after he sells the cubes and freezer, there is likely to follow a big thaw and, in fact, the Eskimo is saved from disaster and gains from the transaction as well.”

It was his daughter’s generosity that first made Schueler aware of the level of poverty in the Bitterroot Valley. One winter while she was attending public school, he noticed she was adding extra food to her lunch box and kept losing her winter coats. Eventually, she told him she was bringing food for her classmates who didn’t have lunches and giving her coats to other kids who didn’t have warm clothes.

“Montana has a low tax base, kids don’t have as much opportunity and there is not as much support for education as in other states,” Schueler said.

Recognizing the needs of many school-age children in Ravalli County — home of the Stock Farm — Schueler established the Greater Ravalli Foundation with Jim Cote, a Stock Farm resident and managing director of AIG, the world’s leading international insurance and financial services organization.

Schueler and Cote called on some of the country’s best known executives and entrepreneurs, many of whom are part-time or full-time residents at the Stock Farm, to help. Their board includes financial giants like Eff Martin from Goldman Sachs, 3M CEO Jim McNerney, venture capitalist Don Valentine and Schwab. Ironman triathlete Matt Guzik, an executive director, raises thousands through race sponsorships. Other board members who are longtime friends are attorney Bill Vancanagan, accountant Jim Talia and Hamilton High School Vice Principal Barbara Solomon.

The Ravalli Foundation, now in its fourth year, raises between $500,000 and $1 million annually to help provide basic needs and educational opportunities for Bitterroot Valley schoolchildren. Its funding priorities include science labs, computers and books; scholarships for all levels of ability; sustenance in the form of lunches, clothing, jackets and boots; and capital improvements.

Schueler said the foundation isn’t about giving handouts.

“We are creating opportunities that I believe every kid should have,” he said.

He is especially proud of the latest addition to the foundation’s efforts, a scholarship program for high school students who show promise but whose grades aren’t high enough to receive an academic scholarship.

For the past two years the foundation has awarded 10 four-year scholarships annually. A committee of teachers, administrators and donors, including Schueler’s wife, Nancy, selects the recipients and presents the awards at a banquet in early May, during which the seniors introduce their families and share their educational goals with board members.

Every dollar that is raised goes back out. There is no overhead.

“It’s very satisfying and really exciting,” Schueler said. “The banquet where we make the awards is probably the highlight of my year.”

Schueler also is a charter donor to the Blugold Angel Fund, a project created through the UW-Eau Claire Foundation and College of Business to provide startup funds for recent UW-Eau Claire graduates who are starting their own businesses in the Chippewa Valley. The goal is to have $250,000 available to support recent UW-Eau Claire alumni.

“A lot of great ideas don’t get cultured in the early stages,” Schueler said. “With just a little nurturing, a young entrepreneur can gain the experience and confidence needed to go forward and succeed.”

Schueler started his own business with $7,000 from his own angel, an uncle in Stoughton, along with the education in business he received from UW-Eau Claire.

“I worked really hard on his farm when I was a kid, and maybe that was the reason he thought I could make it,” Schueler said. “His support and my experience at UW-Eau Claire set me up for my venture into the business world. Now I want to give back to the institution that gave me so much and help others who are entering that world.”

UW-Eau Claire Foundation President Carole Halberg, who recently visited Schueler in Hamilton, said it’s unusual to find both charitable intent and the capacity to give in one person.

“But when you do, it creates magic,” she said

— Carole Halberg contributed to this story.

Janice Wisner is a writer for the UW-Eau Claire News Bureau.

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