It was not quite two years ago that Wilmot Collins stood in the basement of St. Paul Lutheran Church and spoke to a couple dozen Missoula refugee advocates about his experience fleeing the Liberian Civil War. At the time, those advocates had just gotten word that Missoula would be opening the state’s first refugee resettlement office—something that Collins, a member of the United Nations refugee advisory council and then the bluntest critic of the state’s lack of services, had himself been pushing.
He recounted for the group his arrival at the Helena airport in 1994, where he was greeted by a small crowd. “I’m like, all this for me, this refugee from Liberia? But that’s the heart you have. Spread it. That’s the Montana way. We’re not ashamed to show love. I don’t want you to ever be afraid to show love, because it’s always been shown to me.”
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Collins returned to St. Paul Lutheran, only this time he was upstairs, speaking to a crowd of hundreds that spilled out of the nave well before the event began. Collins, elected by Helenans in November as Montana’s first black mayor since 1873, again shared the story of he and his wife Maddie’s journey to Montana, from eating Pepsodent toothpaste when food was scarce in Monrovia, to fleeing to Ghana on a peacekeeping boat with 10,000 others, to learning Maddie was pregnant two weeks before she was to depart for America on a Carroll College scholarship.
This time the story had a new ending.
“As I got out of the plane, I saw this huge banner, ‘Welcome Home Wilmot,’” he said. “As I got into the terminal, I saw all the Carroll College people, my wife, their friends.”
“The only person I wanted to see was my little girl,” Collins continued. “I had not seen her, she was two years old. I heard her mom say, ‘There’s daddy, go to daddy.’ She looked at me and she started to walk toward me. You know Helena Regional Airport is so tiny, but it was so long, I just decided this walk is too long, I’m running. And I ran, picked her up, and she hugged me for the first time. I’m screaming, ‘Maddie, she’s hugging me! She’s hugging me!’
“Little did I know, 23 years later, that same city would call me Mayor Collins,” he said.