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Hot in the spotlight

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Just after 10 a.m. on Tuesday morning, the Missoula Senior Center’s board of directors begins its regularly scheduled monthly meeting. Two armed cops quietly survey some 75 seemingly harmless seniors from the rear of the room. Two television crews set up cameras. Newspaper photographers and reporters hover. It may just be the Senior Center’s most publicized meeting ever. 

And why? Something about pinochle.

A day earlier, longtime center members George Houtchens and Jean Sheppard picketed in the rain outside the center, protesting the fact three members were recently booted for alleged disruptive behavior and a contentious pinochle game. The picket landed on the front page of the daily newspaper, along with an account of a power struggle between one faction of members and the Center’s new executive director, Randal Wolfe. While the picketers preferred not to go into detail with the Indy about the dispute, Wolfe explained that he terminated the memberships for what he called “bullying behavior” amidst a persistent climate of intimidation and harassment. Specifically, Wolfe says he was assaulted last Thursday by one of the three and had to call police to remove them for “behavior that no establishment would permit.”

The tense tenor carries over to the media-filled board meeting. Most speakers voice dismay over the sudden attention to long-standing issues like pinochle times, the needs of a new generation of members, and Wolfe’s leadership.

“It used to be like a family in here, and now we come in here and it’s so divisive,” laments Board Member Jeanne Tallmadge durring the meeting. “We used to feel like we were a family and we used to deal with our problems inside the family. We didn’t go out and air all our bullshit to everybody else! Now we’re the talk of the town!”

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