A welcome change: Richard Opper enjoying retired life

Charlie Denison

Newly retired Richard Opper is enjoying life outside of being a state department head. When not hiking, traveling or spending time with family, he is writing screenplays and novels.
Photo courtesy of Richard Opper

On the first week of this year’s legislative session, former Department of Public Health and Human Services Director Richard Opper didn’t just enjoy his retirement: he gloated in it.

“I flew to Costa Rica for a yoga meditation retreat,” said Opper, a former Lewistown resident. “It was the perfect way to kick off my retirement.”

Yoga might have been out of his comfort zone, but Opper was ready for something different, especially this time of year. Still residing in Helena, he wanted to step away and “take a sabbatical from politics.”

Having been a department head with DPHHS the Department of Environmental Quality back-to-back, who could blame him?

“There is nothing like a boatload of stress for 12 years to make retirement look good,” he said.

“Boatload of stress” is no overstatement. Running the biggest agency in state government the past four years, Opper didn’t exactly have it easy.

“DPHHS employs 3,200 people and has a budget of close to $2 billion a year,” he said. “And, on top of that, peoples’ lives are at stake. We work with people at the worst times in their lives. They need assistance, and we have to be there for them. Both legally and morally, it’s a very important job, and I took my role there very seriously.”

While DPHHS director, Opper faced a lot of challenges, mostly political ones, such as getting Medicaid expansion passed at a time when Republicans controlled the House and the Senate in the legislature.

“It’s pretty miraculous it happened in such a way,” Opper said.

Medicaid expansion is an accomplishment Opper continues to be proud of, especially considering the “demand for access to healthcare is so much greater than we even realized.”

“We were counting on 25,000 to 27,000 people for the first year of the program,” he said. “We had 71,000 sign up. It’s saved lives… many lives.”


Pursuing his passion

Despite the stress, Opper said he loved his career, but, as much as he enjoyed it, he admits he absolutely loves not working.

He’s done his time and now he’s focusing on quality of life, spending time with family, traveling and pursuing his passion: creative writing.

Opper’s inspiration to write actually comes from former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Churchill would paint, stimulating his mind with something creative, as it was “the only time he could turn off the part of his brain obsessed with saving the world.”

Similarly, for Opper, retreating to writing is the best way for him to withdraw from his own obsessions and go somewhere completely different.

“I think it’s important to have interests that are vastly different than what you have to think about everyday in your work life,” he said. “And, now, in retirement, I’ll keep writing. I enjoy it, and I’m not in a position where I have to sell something to make it, which takes a lot of pressure off. I can do it for fun.”

And that’s exactly what he’s doing. First, he wrote a novel, but now is more engaged in another art form.

“I thought I’d greatly reduce my chances of success and write screenplays,” he said, laughing.

Although Opper hasn’t received a call from a Hollywood agent yet, he has done well in screenwriting competitions.

Screenwriting is particularly fun for Opper, as it poses more of a challenge. There are more rules, and you have to know more about the characters before diving into the actions.

“Screenwriting is a lot different than a novel that way,” he said. “You have to know the characters so well that you pretty much have to have private conversations with them. You have to know what they eat at the table and what time they go to bed. It gets to the point where you have to remind yourself they don’t exist.”

Opper actually got into screenwriting partly because of how involved the writer has to be with the characters.

“The first time I had an editor look at my novel he said one of the characters was ill-defined, so I pretended to be that character for a day,” Opper said. “That’s part of the fun. You really have to get people to understand your characters, not just from the words that come out of their mouth, but from the way they act and react, the way they respond to things that happen to them.”


A grateful man

Writing projects are going well, Opper said, as is life in general, something he’s not taking for granted.

“I worked hard, I tried to take advantage of my opportunities and I don’t miss the politics one iota,” he said.

One thing he does miss, however, is Lewistown, as he and his wife, Sally, both very much enjoyed their experience living in town while he was Director of the Missouri River Basin Association. In fact, he even said he wouldn’t have left it he hadn’t been offered the “fancy schmancy” government job.

“We still love Lewistown,” he said. “It’s the most beautiful little town in the state.”

Opper said he’s particularly fond of Big Spring Creek, especially since his son, Isaac, was instrumental in detecting elevated levels of PCBs in 1997 as part of a grade school science project.

“We have a deep connection with Spring Creek, and we still have a deep connection with the community,” Opper said. “People really take care of each other in Lewistown. We will always love the town and the people.”

While enjoying retirement, Opper said he and Sally have plans to return to Lewistown here and there to visit her family, reconnect with friends and enjoy some of the hiking opportunities Central Montana has to offer.

In the meantime, Opper will be busy with yoga, screenwriting and will “do his best” to continue his sabbatical from politics.

 “I’ve been paying more attention than I should,” he confessed.







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