MISSOULA – One served as CEO of Australia’s largest retailer. The other grew the largest bank in Montana. Both have lived lives of generosity and community building, and each will receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Montana.
On March 11, the Montana Board of Regents approved UM’s request to present businessman Dennis K. Eck with an Honorary Doctorate of Business and banker James “Jim” R. Scott with an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters.
The honors will be conferred during UM Commencement ceremonies on Saturday, May 14. The two also will serve as Commencement speakers, with Eck speaking to graduates at the 9 a.m. ceremony and Scott speaking at the 2 p.m. ceremony.
“Dennis and Jim embody what we call ‘the heart of a grizzly,’” UM President Seth Bodnar said. “They have led lives of impact, becoming leaders in their chosen fields and spearheading efforts to lead positive change in their communities and here at our University. It is our great privilege to present each with an honorary doctorate.”
A native of Wolf Point, Eck graduated from UM in 1967 with a degree in history and political science. His meteoric business career launched in grocery retail, when he became manager of produce buying with Jewel Companies Inc. He rose through the ranks, becoming Jewel’s executive vice president for American stores.
Eck later assumed executive positions with The Vons Companies and then Coles Myer in Australia. With the latter company, he served in several roles, eventually rising to chief executive officer and director. As a leader, he actively sought to provide equitable access to education and career advancement.
Recent professional positions include interim chief executive officer and non-executive chairman of the board of Ulta Beauty Inc., the largest U.S. beauty retailer. He also has been a principal with DKE Retail Studies since 2001.
In her nomination letter, Cindy Williams, president and CEO of the UM Foundation, said Eck was a recognized retail industry leader who developed emerging technologies related to e-commerce, loyalty programs using electronic data, automated bookkeeping systems, web-based training tools and virtual warehousing.
Dennis and his wife, Gretchen, a Butte native, have contributed more than $10 million to UM. They funded a renovation and update of the south wing of UM’s Liberal Arts Building, which was renamed Eck Hall in their honor. They also funded the University’s S.E.A. Change Initiative, which prepares students to be change-drivers and next-generation leaders who champion gender equity, and they established a scholarship fund for Native Americans.
The Ecks were the recipients of the 2019 Neil S. Bucklew Presidential Service Award for their service and commitment to UM. In 2019, Dennis received UM’s Distinguished Alumni Award.
In his nomination letter for Eck, Christopher Comer, a biology professor and former dean of UM’s College of Humanities & Sciences, wrote, “Dennis embodies the best we hope for from a liberally educated member of the Griz family: generosity of spirit, demonstrated respect for diversity of talent that people from all backgrounds bring to solving the problems, and a zest for advancing projects in a sustainable relationship with the environment.”
A native of Sheridan, Wyoming, Scott studied at the University of Denver and the University of Wyoming. He and his wife, Chris, moved to Billings in 1976, where he launched his exceptional 45-year career, growing First Interstate BancSystem into the most expansive banking group in Montana and one of the largest in the Pacific Northwest, while remaining true to Scott family values and a commitment to the communities served.
In Billings, Scott has been involved with downtown urban planning, the Billings Centennial, the Great Montana Centennial Cattle Drive and community-based clean-air initiatives. He also worked to support Billings’ Alberta Bair Theatre and the Yellowstone Art Museum.
Both Jim and Chris strongly support science-based conservation and are lifelong supporters of the Nature Conservancy. In the 1990s, Jim became heavily involved with philanthropy, founding the First Interstate Foundation and chairing the Homer and Mildred Scott Foundation after the death of his father.
Scott was deeply influenced growing up near the Crow Indian Reservation. In the ’80s he began working on community and economic development on the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations and in the ’90s served on the board of the American Indian College Fund. He proudly served on the board of the Montana Community Foundation where he became a close friend of Elouise Cobell, who chartered the first tribally owned bank in the nation and eventually won the largest class action suit in history against the U.S. government for mismanagement of Native trust assets.
“I have had the gift of meeting some amazing Native people and families,” Scott said. “I am deeply moved by their ancestors’ stories in the development of our country, by their economic and cultural reality today, and their commitment to achieve a more just future.”
The Scotts helped create the Foundation for Community Vitality, which supports leaders and communities on the Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Blackfeet reservations.
UM has strongly benefitted from Jim’s engagement, guidance and generosity. He has helped fund the University’s O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West, Flathead Lake Biological Station, Payne Family Native American Center, UM Foundation, Crown of the Continent & Greater Yellowstone Initiative and “This is Montana” community vitality program.
Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM director of strategic communications, 406-243-5659, firstname.lastname@example.org.