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Famous and Not Forgotten: Aviator Merrill K. Riddick

Updated: Oct 26, 2021

Certainly, Merrill K. Riddick was a print from which there was no other negative.

He theorized and proposed a new science as a solution to problems of pollution-control and water reuse. Thrilled by aviation as a young boy, he performed aeronautical stunts at circuses with Charles A. Lindbergh. And despite the certainty of losing, he ran three utterly out-of-the-ordinary Presidential campaigns, traveling on the seats of a string of Greyhound buses.

Born in Wisconsin on March 7, 1895, Merrill moved to Fergus County, Montana with his family at about the age 15. His father, Carl W. Riddick, a newspaperman and wheat and cattle rancher, represented eastern Montana in Congress twice, in 1919 and 1921. Carl left office after being defeated by Burton K. Wheeler in the 1922 U.S. Senate race.

As a teenager and young adult, Merrill vagabonded across the Pacific Northwest and the West, mesmerized by the skill of pilots and the vigor of planes. He graduated from the Army Air Force Aeronautics School in San Diego in 1917, flew reconnaissance planes over Europe in the First World War, and was one of the Post Office’s first airmail pilots, operating the airmail route between New York and Washington.

Eventually, Riddick tendered his resignation as an air-mail pilot. Throughout the 1920s, he earned his paycheck offering plane rides to the public at county fairs, or barnstorming rural lands, providing aerial performances, shows often originating or concluding in barns. In 1924, he gave a ride to a young woman in Kentucky; they were engaged the next day.

In 1928, he worked at the nation’s first private aviation school, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and around that time he formed a friendship with the famous World War I fighter pilot Eddie Rickenbacker. Riddick graduated as an airplane pilot from the Austin School of Military Aeronautics and became an aviation instructor and technical inspector of planes during World War II.

Somehow he ended up in Philipsburg, Montana perhaps because of his interest in gold prospecting. It was in these years that Riddick became a scientist of sorts, a philosopher and perennial candidate for public office.

Birth of a Theory

Merrill Riddick proposed a new science that he called “Applied Human Ecology.” He pamphleteered with typed and photocopied pages of discursive, though salient, theories, and printed hundreds of copies of journal editions discussing them. Riddick’s theory of environmental control required striking a balance between pollution (a word he frequently spelled with only one letter l) and the development of our natural resources.

Riddick was verbose, and his manifestos were as dense as marsh thickets in the Pintlers. But that’s not to say that he was out of step with reality. Indeed, his papers confirm that he was an early seeker after ecological truth, a purveyor of “the need of human adjustment to new modes of dealing with the complicated factors and variables” of environmental control.

He was determined to promote his progressive ideas in earnest. For Riddick, Montana was a live test, a laboratory experiment in the making. Trudging off into the political wilderness, Riddick launched his aspirations with a quest for the Montana Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1960.

By and large, Riddick believed that the solution to the crisis he sensed in the state required pragmatic solutions. According to material written, circulated and paid for by Riddick to promote his candidacy for governor, he would use these positions as a platform of natural resource potential development. The candidate’s key tenets are as follows:

1) A barge canal up the Missouri River INTO Montana as far as Fort Benton.

2) A barge canal up the Milk River into Canada.

3) Water to put into the Snake River for the proposed 515-mile aqueduct from the Snake River to Lake Mead (just above Hoover Dam) on the Colorado River.

4) Compensation for Canada for additional water that will drown out the Pick-Sloan controversy (conflict between the Buerau (sic) of Reclamation and U.S. Army Engineers, that has resulted in committing water in the Missouri 4 ½ times its content) and stopping the Dakotas from getting Montana to sell her birthright for lower Missouri river basin development.

5) The down-river demands are the biggest piracy of Montana rights in history.

Riddick finished last in a field of six, receiving about 1,000 votes. He decided to launch a second bid for the same office in 1968 with the same result: few votes and last place among six Democrats.

His candidacies for political office now little more than a formality, he decided to switch parties. His career as a Republican was similarly ill-fated. In a field of four Republicans vying for the U.S. Senate in 1972, he came in fourth, garnering around 1,500 votes.

Flights of Fancy

Undeterred by the Senate loss, or perhaps perversely motivated by it, Riddick then “raised the ante” and started his own tongue-knotting presidential party, the Magnetohydrodynamics party. Magnetohydrodynamics, according to Britannica, is the description of the behavior of a plasma,” or, in more general terms, “any electrically conducting fluid in the presence of electric and magnetic fields.”

The prohibition component of the title was a double entendre: Riddick saw political fundraising as congenitally dishonest and unfair, and he campaigned on the pledge to eliminate not just alcohol, which, in his estimate, was an incorrigibly sordid problem, but also illegal campaign contributions. He would, however, innocuously accept donations of a single dollar or less.

Riddick first ran for the White House in 1976, paying for mailers with his military pension checks. Using his post office box in Philipsburg as his correspondence address, Riddick described himself in one handbill as “a widower-pensioner, 3 children, 10 grand children, veteran of WW1 and WW2 and half a century of reserve service – not addicted to dope or alcohol.”

Here’s one advertisement that Riddick ran in Montana newspaper: “Merrill Riddick for President (no political contributions accepted). There are many ways to solve the energy crisis, besides giving a monopoly to the folks who bribe enough politicians. These would include: (1) Solar Energy, (2) Thermal Energy, (3) Ocean Energy, (4) Hydrocarbon use.”

Days after Jimmie Carter was elected President of the United States in 1976, Riddick affirmed his intention to run once again in 1980. He also ran for president in 1984. All three times, Riddick nominally campaigned across the country on the Greyhound buses where he also lived and slept. Two-month unrestricted bus passes, he said, were economically expedient. Instead of posting up in a hotel, “for less than $12 a day,” the Social Security recipient told the media, he could live on the bus.

Largely symbolic, these candidacies were virtually ignored by the mainstream press outside of Montana; reporters and photographers almost always outnumbered supporters at his events in the state, however, once, after the car caravan that Riddick had counted on to promote his candidacy in Missoula failed to materialize, he simply hopped back onto the bus and returned home to Philipsburg.

During his first presidential candidacy, Riddick announced that an artist from Coos Bay, Oregon, “Lim Bow” would be his vice president (this name was a lark, perhaps a silly variant of the word limbo). Within weeks, Riddick said that he rescinded the offer to Lim Bow, something that he drolly attributed to “a philosophical disagreement on the nature of campaign conduct.”

Mindful of the attention garnered through odd self-promotion, Riddick then proffered the name of superstar daredevil Robert Craig “Evel” Knievel as a possibility to fill the vacancy. Riddick ostensibly hoped to exploit the Butte native’s gargantuan celebrity – and his presumably indignant rebuff – as a springboard to boost his own campaign. Knievel never accepted the bestowal, and Riddick later admitted that he was unable to even make contact with the daredevil.

This quick-witted octogenarian, however, always could be counted on to spin a good yarn. Riddick occasionally entertained amused reporters in his small home office, located between a funeral home and the Antler’s Bar and Café in downtown Philipsburg.

Crouched at a table cluttered with notebooks, books, boxes, and scraps of political ephemera, Riddick liked to tell stories like the following to captive reporters: according to Riddick, the U.S. government once needed 50,000 airplanes for World War II, so it commenced “a worldwide search for sapphires.” The government then dug 20 tons of sapphires in Philipsburg and shipped six tons to Switzerland to support the war effort. In Riddick’s framing of events, Hitler intercepted the sapphire shipment and the bulk of the sapphires were returned to Philipsburg.

Riddick was 89 years of age during his final run for the presidency in 1984, a token so tenuously pursued that Riddick didn’t even bother to name a running mate. Tossing his hat in the ring by that time was more sideshow ceremony than serious decorum, yet, in keeping with Riddick’s confident public manner for the past 25 years, Riddick was never less than certain of his own integrity and good intentions.

In February 1987, Riddick moved to Annapolis, Maryland, to live with his sister, Ruth McLain, but soon needed to be placed at a convalescent center. When he died of cancer on Wednesday, March 9, 1988, the Associated Press noted the unique affection that many in Montana held for the quirky eccentric: “Perennial losing candidates are not unusual in American politics. But Riddick’s quests earned him a place in the hearts of many in Montana, a state proud of its individualists.”

The Riddick Field Airport in Philipsburg was named in 1976, perhaps for both his distinguished aviation career and for his flights of fancy.

—Brian D’Ambrosio

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