The All-American Roots of Montana’s New Governor: Greg Gianforte’s Early Years
Updated: Dec 12, 2022
In the coming months, the Montana State Legislature will convene under a Republican Administration for the first time in 16 years. Governor Greg Gianforte will sit at the leadership helm of the new administration where he will take charge of making public policy for the 1,069,000 people happy to call Montana’s rows of cobalt mountains and wide sky home.
Before Gianforte became a political leader in Montana, holding a seat in Congress after building a number of prosperous high-tech businesses, he was an all-American boy in the outer suburbs of the city of Philadelphia.
The New Governor's Pennsylvania Roots
Born in San Diego, California to Frank Gianforte and Dale Douglass Gianforte on April 17, 1961, Greg Gianforte spent most of his childhood in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, one of many strands of suburbs laced around Philadelphia. A community sprung from colonial America, King of Prussia is now home to one of the largest shopping malls in the country.
Gianforte left quite a legacy in sports and school government at Upper Merion Area High School (UMAHS) before moving on to Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. In New Jersey, he was involved in successful software company start-ups until 1995 when he brought his family to Montana, a place Gianforte says he grew to love after visiting Big Sky Country on a school trip as a young man.
While many Montanans have heard the story of the Bozeman tech entrepreneur-turned-politician before, the deeper story of his life and its fine details have usually been lacking.
Just who is Governor Greg Gianforte?
In Gianforte’s young adulthood, he was the pride of UMAHS, leading his peers in school government, academic achievement and on the football field.
“He was the type of person who had a path,” John McCormick, a classmate and sports teammate says. “He was already on it.”
McCormick and Gianforte became friends at UMAHS through football, lacrosse and classes. They both took the first computer-science class available at UMAHS when they were sophomores, getting an early introduction to what would be the tech entrepreneur’s first career.
Students were taught basic software on TRS 80s, desktop computers born in the late 1970s. The class came easy to both McCormick and Gianforte. The summer after their sophomore year, Gianforte already was able to create a computer payment program for his father’s business.
McCormick says he likes to tell his children that while he was mowing lawns for his summer job, Greg Gianforte was getting ahead of the curve. “He already saw the future and had already jumped on it,” McCormick recalls.
Besides getting his first taste of software development as a teenager, Gianforte found another passion as an offensive lineman for the UMAHS Vikings.
Rich Como, former UMAHS football coach, remembers Gianforte as a motivated and intelligent student and also as a talented football player. As multiple peers also note, Gianforte was a leader throughout high school and in sports. Gianforte played a big role in the 1978 championship game the team won in his senior year, according to Coach Como.
“He was a kid who stepped up and talked to the team and made speeches at halftime and was motivational for the rest of the players,” Como remembers.
Como became close with the Gianforte family and even visited them on the Jersey Shore, where the family vacationed during the summer. Como, new to UMAHS at the time, was excited to take his young boys to the Shore but the trip wouldn’t have been feasible due to expenses. He recalls the Gianforte brothers Greg, Douglass and Michael and his own kids playing at the beach and spending an evening at the amusement park. Como recalls Gianforte’s mother, Dale, as having a kind nature and adoring Coach Como’s boys.
“They afforded me an opportunity that I would not have been able to have,” Como recalls. “And so my kids got to see the beach and participate in that at a very young age, and I was grateful for that.”
The football coach recalls that, much like his son Greg, the elder Mr. Gianforte was very smart and driven. Como saw Greg Gianforte’s ambition manifested on and off the field and later in his parenting as a father, noting, “His dad's influence was great in Greg’s life,” Como says. “Same kind of person, very motivated and very focused.”
Before Frank Gianforte passed away, in 2015, he owned and managed properties on New Jersey’s coast after retiring from numerous engineering jobs, including with the Aerospace Division of General Electric. Gianforte’s mother, Dale, who passed away in 2008, was a typical 1960s-’70s stay-at-home mother who took care of her three children.
Prior to Gianforte’s time as Montana’s lone House Representative from 2017-2021 and his election as Montana’s governor in 2020, he first held political office as class president at UMAHS in his junior year. Joe Havlick, a classmate and church friend, says Gianforte held the title through his senior year.
“It's kind of unfortunate that I had to be in high school with a future governor,” Havlick says with a chuckle. Havlick wasn’t a bit surprised to see someone as well-liked, popular and driven go on to bigger and better things in national politics.
Gianforte and Havlick also grew up together in the Valley Forge Presbyterian Church. They were both active in youth groups and Sunday School starting from an early age.
The minister at Valley Forge Presbyterian, Reverend Joseph Jensen, Jr., was a civil-rights activist both within the community and around the country. In the 1960s, Rev. Jensen marched on Washington to protest against the Vietnam War and went to Selma to register voters in Alabama. Jensen also worked to fight against discrimination in the community by acting as a “straw-buyer” for Black community members who were misled about whether a house they wanted to purchase was on or off the market.
Havlick says that when he learned of Gianforte’s current religious views, including his denial of Darwinian evolution and discrimination towards LGBTQ+ and disabled persons, he was puzzled. He never expected Gianforte would grow to hold such beliefs as they were not evident when Gianforte was a teenager.
“He’s gone very far-right, and he’s very religious,” Havlick says. “When I first heard that that was the case, that never would have occurred to me.”
The new Montana governor has made his somewhat controversial religious beliefs a cornerstone of his life and philanthropy. Gianforte has donated to organizations that discriminate against LGBTQ+ individuals and to the Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum, which teaches that humans and dinosaurs coexisted and is operated by a non-profit called Advancing Creation Truth. Gianforte has funded expansions and served on the Board of Trustees of Petra Academy, a Classical Christian School that his children have attended in Bozeman. Petra Academy has caused controversy in the Bozeman area over the school’s reluctance to extend services to students with learning and mental disabilities.
“I think he’s really religiously made quite a journey,” says Marwan Kreidie, another classmate and former church peer.
Kreidie also attended Valley Forge Presbyterian and UMAHS with Gianforte. He shares stories similar to Havlick’s about Rev. Jensen, describing attending an anti-nuclear rally with Jensen and other church parishioners. Learning about the incoming governor’s religious views surprised him, Kreidie explains, because Gianforte’s current ideology seems at odds with the actions and beliefs of the young man he knew growing up.
Kreidie, a professor in the political science department at West Chester University who considers himself left of the Democratic Party, offered to meet privately with his old friend in Washington, D.C., after Gianforte’s 2018 re-election to Congress, to discuss Middle East topics. Kreide, however, never received a response from his former classmate.
An issue that surprised both Kreidie and Havlick concerned an individual who took to social media to publicly accuse Gianforte of bullying them throughout high school during Gianforte’s 2020 campaign for Governor. The person declined an interview, stating they currently had no desire to talk about Gianforte and are now “far above him in every way.”
For many of Gianforte’s fellow classmates at UMAHS, the murder of Susan Reinert, their high school English teacher, just weeks after graduation in 1979 made the world a darker place.
The impact of the horrific incident has been impossible to shake for many members of the Class of 1979. The principal of Gianforte’s high school, as well as another teacher, were implicated in the crime, and some of the students who attended the school noted later that the mentors they had looked up to and trusted became evil figures in their lives overnight, making their worlds a little darker and more uncertain.
Just weeks after Gianforte’s senior-class graduation, Susan Reinert was found dead. Her children’s remains have never been discovered. In 1986, former UMAHS principal Jay C. Smith was convicted for the murders. His conviction was overturned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1992. William Bradfield, another English teacher at UMAHS and Reinert’s romantic partner, was convicted of conspiracy to commit the murders of Reinert and her children.
Gianforte’s classmate John McCormick shares that he lost trust in humanity when he saw his leaders commit such horrific actions. “Greg was right there, you know, as a student in class office dealing with these administrators that were all involved,” McCormick recalls of the senior class president.
Success at Stevens Institute of Technology
The summer after his graduation, Gianforte followed in his father’s footsteps and attended Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, New Jersey. While at Stevens, Gianforte was part of Delta Tau Delta, Tau Beta Pi and the Stevens Entrepreneurs Club. He graduated in 1983 with a B.E. in Electrical Engineering and an M.S. in Computer Science.
Ronald Panicucci, a Stevens classmate, met Gianforte in a large lecture class freshman year. While they pursued different majors, both were members of Tau Beta Pi, an engineering honor society. “Right from the start, he was a classmate I respected and always looked up to,” Panicucci explains in an email.
Gianforte also was active in the Stevens Entrepreneurs Club, where he shed light on different career opportunities engineers like Panicucci could take. Instead of being stuck working for a large corporation, Gianforte dared his peers to push through the status quo of engineering and start their own ventures. “I quickly learned that engineers can also be business owners and pursue paths of leadership, something I can say was initially inspired by Greg,” Panicucci said via email.
Jeff Smith, another classmate at Stevens, describes Gianforte as one of the smartest people he’s ever met and says Gianforte is well thought of amongst his peers. The two shared a friendly competition between their fraternities, Gianforte’s Delta Tau Delta and Smith’s Sigma Nu.
Smith and Panicucci also describe how generous Gianforte has been in his donations to Stevens. In 2016, Gianforte gave the remaining $10 million of a $20-million donation, so the school could construct and name a building and academic center after the Gianforte family. But according to “The Stute,” Stevens’ student newspaper, students have protested and demanded that the university decline the funding, because of Gianforte’s financial support of anti- LGBTQ+ organizations and the creationist museum in Glendive.
In October of 2017, students and alumni started a GoFundMe account called “Stevens Name Your Price” in an effort to fund the academic center without relying on donations from Gianforte.
Eventually the university decided to call the building The Gateway Academic Center and to name the northern half of the center The Gianforte Family Hall. Student protests over use of the Gianforte name, however, have continued.
Into the Future
Greg Gianforte has taken on many leadership roles throughout his very successful life to date, from the early days of holding the presidencies of his junior and senior classes, to inspiring college peers to re-imagine their career options. As the decades have passed, however, some of Gianforte’s early peers have seen him develop into a very different person than the one they knew as young people.
As the Montana Press chronicles the biography of the state's new governor, Gianforte's road from Pennsylvania and New Jersey to Montana, from computer science student to tech millionaire, and from mainstream Presbyterian to Creationist, will be examined for citizens across the state.
As Governor Gianforte is sworn in as Montana’s new governor on January 4, 2021, the Montana Press will investigate his past and present. In this ongoing series, we will continue during the upcoming state Legislative session to present a biographical profile of the new governor and follow his leadership of state government. See Part Two here and Part Three here.