A Butte Farewell

by BART MIHAILOVICH & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & f only the good die young, then only the greatest make it as long as Robert Craig Knievel. And when a guy like Evel dies and a city like Butte hosts the funeral, what proceeds is a thing of beauty.

Butte rolled out a big red, white and blue carpet for its favorite son and American icon on Monday as about 5,000 of Evel's family, friends and fans gathered to pay their respects to the legendary daredevil who died on Friday, Nov. 30, at the age of 69.

Frank Sinatra's "My Way" fittingly set the mood in the Butte Civic Center as visitors waited along a red carpet to view the legendary Knievel in his open casket. Suits and ties mixed with bandanas and leather as tears were drowned by laughter.

The Last of the Gladiators lay peacefully, fully adorned in his famous white leather jumpsuit with red and blue stars and stripes, in a beautiful wood casket as Enrique Iglesias' "Hero" provided the soundtrack. American flags provided a skirt for the stage as a large projection screen above showed classic Evel photos.

The area behind the stage was a gathering place where poster-size photos of Evel were showcased on easels along with placards that showed comments left by Evel's fans on his Website -- comments by people like "tatooguy" and "evel36."

James Blake of Conway, Ark., sold some stocks to make the trip to Butte. "Evel has had a major impact on my life," he said before the service. In 1994, Blake received a call from Evel, a call set up through a friend of a friend of Evel's, right around the anniversary of Blake's father passing. "He talked to me for a few minutes and I felt better," Blake said. "I've had a lot of ups and downs. It has been a tough road, but I had Evel. He holds a special place in my heart."

Dr. Robert H. Schuller, the founding pastor of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., welcomed the crowd by saying, "This famous man, from this great town, he's with you enjoying this great show."

Evel's granddaughter Krysten sang "Amazing Grace" to a crowd that had fallen absolutely silent. As the last of her voice carried throughout the Civic Center, former Montana Governor Judy Martz spoke of how happy she was that Evel had accepted God. Then she thanked the Knievel family for "giving to our great state."

Evel's longtime friend and manager Bill Rundle sent Evel off by proclaiming, "Evel, may you jump all the clouds in heaven and happy landings. Godspeed, my friend."

Doug Wilson, the former producer of ABC's Wide World of Sports, brought humor to the stage as he shared what it was like to work with Evel. Wilson breathed heavy, spoke loud and proud (with his hands and body) and laughed at every one of his own comments. When a baby started crying he quickly joked, "Oh, Evel would kiss him right now."

Matthew McConaughey, who narrated an Evel documentary for the History Channel, strolled to the podium as cool as the character he usually plays on the screen. He opened with an, "All right," in the voice straight from Dazed and Confused. Sounding like a politician, McConaughey reflected on the need to "just keep living. That's what Evel did -- he lived long, lived hard, lived well, lived full-throttle." He then closed by saying, "I'm here to celebrate his final jump. He's forever in flight. He doesn't have to come down. He doesn't have to land." McConaughey then pumped his fist in the air and the crowd erupted in cheers.

Evel's son Robbie spoke about the title of greatest daredevil. "I'm not the greatest daredevil in the world. I'm the son of the greatest mom, the brother of the greatest brothers and sisters, the father of the greatest daughter, the uncle of the greatest nieces and nephews," he said, speaking ever faster as if to beat the tears from overtaking him. "And I'm the son of the greatest daredevil in the world."

As a solo bagpiper led the body of Evel Knievel out into the Butte air, something that Evel's friend Gene Sullivan said resonated. "Evel wouldn't have lived the life he lived without you people in Butte," he said.

And something tells me that the people of Butte wouldn't have lived the life they have without a little Evel in them.