Featured Bozemanite: Paul Lachapelle

Liz Krause Williams

In the middle of his three hundred mile walk through the French Alps, Paul Lachapelle pauses to rest on a rock. Pristine air nips with an early morning coolness that suggests summer never fully develops at elevation. The blanket of wildflowers counters with an argument that summer is, in fact, there.

Within a few feet, Bearded Bellfower, Alpine Snowball, and Columbine disguise the trail leading to a high alpine lake that is clear enough to see both the perfect reflection of the sky and the rocks lining the belly of the water—depending on sunlight. Lachapelle breathes in and sighs out, admiring where the meadow meets dense forest, and behind the trees where sharp granite spears skyward from the earth.

 He was winding down an eight month tour of Europe. The first six months were spent on the saddle of a bike, pedaling over 2,000 miles in England, Ireland, and France. With his bike shipped home, he was now on foot. Somewhere between Lake Geneva and the Mediterranean Sea, somewhere during the two months of solo hiking, Lachapelle decided what his next step would be. It was time to go to school.

Lachapelle was born in Syracuse, New York to loving parents Peg and Rene Lachapelle. By the time he was eight, the family settled in Shelburne, Vermont where he spent his childhood. The youngest of three brothers, life was a blend of tight-knit family gatherings, adventures in the Vermont wild, music and song, and education.

Lachapelle’s propensity for music was cultivated during fireside sing-alongs at family reunions. While in high school, he met Mark Bowie and Tim Capron. The three started playing together forming a band called “The Boyz.” With Bowie on the guitar, Capron on bass, and Lachapelle on drums, the trio’s sound was an eclectic mix of 60’s rock revival and dance-worthy originals like “She Loves Buddha” (find it on YouTube).

The Boyz caught steam after winning a small recording contract. They opened for artists like REO Speedwagon, The Beach Boys, Richard Marx, Eddie Money, The Smithereens, Bodeans, Survivor, and the B-52’s for audiences of 6,000. It wasn’t just a hobby. The band was a business. They had a road crew, a light show, and produced a couple of albums.

It was a special time for Lachapelle, filled with hard work. After six years, the progress slowed. Competition was fierce and the three amicably decided it was time to pull the plug on their rock-n-roll lifestyle. A new chapter was due. Lachapelle went to Europe for a break and to consider his next move.

Upon returning from the French Alps, he enrolled in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Vermont. While in school, he became involved with forest management systems, in particular hiking and trail clubs. As a backcountry caretaker he was exposed to local challenges with human waste disposal in the backcountry. That’s a nice way of saying “poo management.”

His undergraduate work led to new composting toilet systems and, he tells me with a grin, a toilet on the Appalachian Trail in his honor—with his name on a plaque and a beautiful view of the mountains from the seat. Lachapelle is the first (and probably the last) person I know with a toilet in his honor.

After graduation, Lachapelle road the “poo train” to Nepal via a grant from the Department of Defense to complete environmental and sanitation assessments at a climbing base camp. When his research was complete, he continued working in Nepal at the Embassy’s Environmental Office.

This was just the beginning of what quickly developed into a fascinating career as an educator, research scientist, and community development specialist.
Lachapelle went on to graduate school at the University of Montana studying resource conservation and eventually earned his Ph.D. in forestry and conservation, focusing on natural resource policy. He was honored with a U.S. Fulbright Scholarship to return to Nepal to continue research and development.
He has worked with Inuit in several arctic national parks, provided consultation of forest management and community development projects in Guinea, West Africa, and researched on the role of community governance in Kruger National Park, South Africa. He authored many peer-reviewed journal articles on local governance and strategic planning.

Today, Lachapelle is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Montana State University and serves as the Extension Community Development Specialist. Lachapelle and the team at the Local Government Center provide research, technical assistance and training on various community development topics in communities across the state. Every day, they help communities develop better communication, more effective plans, and improve resources in Montana.

This story of Lachapelle’s life—while abundantly full and inarguably impressive—does not actually tell you who he is. See, it is impossible to know Lachapelle without knowing a little about his father, Dr. Rene C. Lachapelle.
After seriously considering seminary, Rene moved from Canada to Syracuse where he became a microbiologist and met the love of his life (they were married 53 years). He went on to become the Director of Medical Technology in the Biology Department at the University of Dayton and then Director and Chairperson of the Department of Medical Technology at the University of Vermont.

Much like his son, Rene had a full and rewarding professional life. But, it was Rene’s spirit that was most potent. He was gracious and encouraging. He was described as having a unique ability to find the very best in everyone he encountered. Rene was a trained scientist with the soul of a priest and the heart of an educator.

After his passing, Lachapelle shared of his father, “The hundreds of students he mentored, advised and taught were grateful for his warm personality, his open door policy, and for going the extra mile to ensure they succeeded. He is remembered for his compassionate approach to student problems.”

Like his father, Lachapelle’s capacity for generosity and kindness is nothing short of immeasurable. He reaches out to struggling students, helping them navigate and succeed. He’s handed over the keys of his home, his car, and his belongings to countless friends, acquaintances, and strangers. He knocks on the door of someone in need, delivering simple, yet important staples. Atop a mountain, he’ll befriend strangers passing on the trail and offer them tea made hot from his stove.

He is effortlessly kind. Of all the things a parent can give a son, it is clear that Lachapelle’s greatest inheritance is his father’s heart. He carries it with humility and gratitude. Lachapelle endeavors to live by his father’s mantra, “You can’t pay it back. But you can pay it forward.” What a beautiful way to live.

Paul Lachapelle lives in Bozeman and can be found traveling the state (and the world) with his lady, mentoring on campus, sending the puck at Haynes Pavilion, on every trail or slope (depending on the season), and surrounded by the people that know and love him. Someone especially close to Lachapelle described him as “an incredible athlete, passionate scholar, and the most caring, generous soul I know.”  

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