Mark Whitehead: A Life that Glitters and Shines

Photo of Mark Whitehead and his wife, Jody.

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Historical Museum at Fort Missoula

By CRAIG THOMAS NAYLOR

I like interesting people, and Mark Whitehead fits to a T. He spent his life traveling the world, working his way to the top of the mining industry and has seen more places in the world than anyone I know. In April, 2021, I caught up with him at his retirement home in Cody, Wyo., which is filled with art and folk art from his world travels.

CTN: How’d you get started in the mining industry?

MW: The waste dumps and derelict machinery from the abandoned mines near my childhood home in Townsend, Montana fascinated me. After high school, I enrolled at the University of Montana in Forestry but learned I’d have to live in the Southeast to find a job. The heat and humidity didn’t appeal to me so I switched to geology.

CTN: So, you graduated and started working?

MW: Nope. I decided to help the war effort in Vietnam. I wanted to go fight, but the Army looked at my science background and sent me to Arizona as a meteorologist. I wasn’t happy. I wanted to either see battle or do geology, so I served and got out. I bounced around from job to job and worked the graveyard shift at the East Pacific Mine, high in the hills west of Winston.

CTN: Sounds like a career dead end.

MW: It was, but one day I ran into an old professor who asked what I was doing. I told him. He scolded me. ‘Mark, you’re too smart for this. Get your masters degree and get a real job.’ So I did. I went to Montana Tech and had wonderful professors who lit a fire in me I didn’t know I had.

CTN: Where did you work then?

MW: My first stop was the hard rock division of Marathon Oil. They sent me to projects in Australia, Niger, the Yukon, and Western Europe. I loved it! But they closed the hard rock projects and put me into the oil division. I’m sorry, but I like to hold ore firmly in my hand, not have it ooze through my fingers. 

CTN: It sounds like great experience for a step up.

MW: It was, but life happened. My first wife left about this time and took our daughter, who I didn’t see for years. I remarried and had three boys. We wanted a girl, so we tried again and got two more boys—twins! I struggled to support a family. I worked at mines in Nevada and California. Sometimes I moved up with a new job, other times the company downsized and I was laid off. I came home one day to a note from my wife saying good bye. I had an unsatisfying job that didn’t pay well and five boys to raise. It was a bleak time.

CTN: What turned it around?

MW: It didn’t’ turn around yet. Crown Butte in Billings hired me in public relations but laid me off a few months later. I was pretty low, then two things happened. I came home from work one day and a young woman was sitting on my porch. ‘Who are you?’ I asked. ‘I’m your daughter,’ she replied. We’ve been close ever since. She’s married with two college-age kids. The second great thing is I met Jody, the woman who’s been my wife for the past 27 years.”

CTN: And did that good personal luck carry through to the professional side?

MW: It did, finally! I got a call from a Canadian company who offered a job in Burma, (now called Myanmar). I had no idea where Burma was, but I took it! A few days later I was on a plane to oversee Southeast Asian projects for the Ivanhoe umbrella of companies, leaving Jody with children she’d only known a week. She flew over with the kids a few days later, set up house, and whipped those boys into shape. 

CTN: What was your job description?

MW: I oversaw the geophysics, the test drilling, and met with government officials to provide infrastructure and establish environmental requirements. We were there for three and a half years, then I was promoted and transferred to Jakarta, Indonesia, for roughly the same thing but with more political and government meetings.

CTN: It sounds like life finally came together.

MW: Not really. It was a great gig for a while, but then things got hot. I was almost killed in the hills of Borneo during a tribal conflict. One group still occasionally practiced cannibalism, and I was lucky to escape with all my body parts. 

Soon after, there was military coup. Jody and I were in Burma. We needed to get the kids out and booked a flight. The oldest cleaned out the safe, and our driver eased them through mobs to the airport where they found some Chinese had outbid us on the seats. The kid’s cell phone went dead so here we were, hundreds of miles away, not knowing what was going on. Fortunately, a FedEx cargo pilot overheard and put them on his plane. We all reunited in Singapore.

(Mark paused at this point and looked at me, “And people wonder why I have gray hair.”)

CTN: What happened then? 

MW: The company moved us to Bankok and my job expanded to oversee all of Asia, including South Korea and Mongolia.

CTN: How long were you there?

MW: Two years, then they promoted me to vice president and transferred us to Johannesburg, South Africa, to get the infrastructure up and running for a platinum, palladium, and nickel mine. We had some great times traveling the game parks, even one private reserve owned by the company.

CTN: And was that the final move?

MW: Heck no! We were sent back to Burma to keep operating a copper mine the Chinese eventually bribed government officials to give to them. 

CTN: (I started with a question and Mark stopped me.)

MW: A bit of an aside here. The Chinese have locked up mineral deposits all over the world. If the U.S. and other countries don’t get their act together, our industries are going to have trouble finding resources to keep our economy moving.

CTN: I know. A friend of mine was Vice President Cheney’s advisor on sub-Sahara politics, and we talked about this back then, what, 20 years ago, now.

MW: Yeah, it’s been going on too long.

CTN: And where’d you go next?

MW: My last post was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a fascinating job where I met with tribal chiefs, attended many of their ceremonies, and did my best to placate and cajole them. The country was embroiled in a civil war, and when an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] took out a sculpture in front of our hotel, I decided it was time to retire. So here we are in Jody’s hometown, Cody, Wyoming. 

CTN: Any final words?

MW: I’m happy to be retired, but I loved what I did. I miss it at times, and I do have to admit, if you put a hunk of shiny metal ore in my hands, I still get a little misty eyed. Mark Whitehead
 MSN

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