Harp Cote recalls his work for Butte Central Schools auction

John "Harp" Cote, shown standing outside his business, was one of the founders of Butte Central Schools' annual auction, which will celebrate 50 years of fundraising for the private Catholic schools later this month.

From behind his desk in the office of Butte’s Christie Transfer and Storage Company, John "Harp" Cote read a long list of families who have served as supporters and organizers of Butte Central Catholic Schools’ annual auction for roughly 50 years.

“Everyone on the list and their families have had something to do with the auction and have helped make it successful,” Cote said.

Although Cote, 95, didn’t give himself much credit for this success, he is the man who suggested Central schools host an auction to raise money in the first place, in about 1969.

Cote explained that the auction started as a sort of weekend-long rummage sale to bring in extra cash for Central athletics. Over the past 50 years, it has grown to become the source of a significant amount of Butte Central’s academic, athletic, and activities funds, and it is now a one-night event that includes silent and live auctions of “finer things” along with games for the whole family, Cote said. 

“When we first started, we were not very particular about what we auctioned off,” Cote said, laughing. “The people running it now do a much better job. … You’d think after 50 years it would die out, but people are still excited about participating.”

Cote graduated from Butte Central High School in 1942. All of his children went through Central schools as well, and he said the fact that many families have been attending Butte Catholic schools for generations says something about the Central program.

“I think the proof is in the pudding. You see peoples' kids and grandkids all working to help the school,” Cote said. “It proves there’s something good going on there.”

Cote said he still attends the yearly Central auction, which is set to take place on Friday, March 29, at the Maroon Activities Center. This year’s auction is called “Mining City Memories” and aims to honor families like Cote’s that have supported Butte Central schools for so long.

In a recent interview with The Montana Standard, former Central teacher, coach, and athletic director Don Peoples Sr.; current Butte Central Director Don Peoples Jr.; and auction committee member June Pusich-Lester talked more about this year’s mission and the auction’s history.

“We want to recognize these families’ hard work. They set the foundation for our schools and contributed morally, financially, and through their work ethic,” said Pusich-Lester.

“A lot of groups have auctions now, but this was one of the first,” Peoples Sr. added. “Butte Central was on the cutting edge of introducing auctions to Butte.”

In recent years, the annual auction has brought in $60,000 to $70,000. This year, the goal is $80,000, which would be about 10 percent of Butte Central’s annual budget. It’s the largest event fundraiser of the year, the three Central alumni said.

On top of honoring the key contributing Central families this year, including by inscribing their names on a plaque, the group said 40 businesses in the Butte area that have contributed to the Catholic schools and the community as a whole over the years have also been invited to the auction. Peoples Sr. said these staple businesses will be honored and thanked at the event.

Over the years, there have been many memorable auctions. Peoples Sr. said one year a woman set her coat on the auction stage and came back later to find it had been sold for $50. Peoples Jr. said the most successful and bittersweet auction occurred around 1979, when the Anaconda Copper Mining Company closed and donated all of its office furniture to be sold.

But the auction provides an opportunity to look forward, too. Pusich-Lester noted that she is excited for the auctions to come, as new families have stepped up to help out.

“Even though we’re honoring our past, this year we’ve had some wonderful families jump on board and come up with some really excellent ideas,” Pusich-Lester said. “It’s been really eye-opening and exciting to think of our future.”

One of those new contributors is Taren McGree. Although her husband’s family has been involved with the Central auction for years, this is McGree’s first time pitching in.

“I decided to be a part of the auction this year because I recognized how critical it is to the success of the schools,” McGree said. “Butte Central relies so much on this fundraising effort, and this is a way to give back.”

McGree grew up in Twin Bridges, but all four of her kids are enrolled at Central schools. Late last year, she ran a special fundraiser for a Butte Central family and said she was asked to help with the annual auction because of that fundraiser’s success.

One idea McGree helped bring to the table this year was a raffle for a four-person family trip to Disney World. She said students were asked to sell raffle tickets for the theme park trip and that some of the elementary classrooms were holding competitions to see who could sell the most.

“I think that it takes a village to make these kinds of things execute right,” McGree said. “I’ve learned a lot this year and plan to continue being a part of the auction.”

Tom Downey, who graduated from Butte Central High School in 1971, expressed similar thoughts. He said there are strong Butte roots that have helped support Central schools for years and noted that the families that have stayed in the Mining City for many generations are impressive to him.

Downey has been going to the auction since he was a little kid, and he moved back to Butte from Helena to raise his kids in Butte Central schools.

“The auction has just been a part of my life, I guess,” Downey said. “Raising my kids in schools with Catholic values and specific religious education was very important to me.”

Around 1995, Downey said he helped organize the annual auction and has always understood its value to Central schools. But although the logistics have changed over the years, the auction has always acted as a kind of Butte Central family reunion.

“You always see multiple generations of families at these events. It just feels like one big family,” Downey said.

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