Angels fly because they “take themselves lightly,” Leslie Oakland often said.
This fall, cancer cut Oakland’s life short, but what a difference she made in her 61 years.
Oakland, who led City Motor Co., “opened her wings to lighten everyone’s day.” She was a good-humored woman who championed causes with grace — fighting for the rights of battered women, helping those with intellectual disabilities, funding research to cure disease and creating opportunities for students to learn and grow.
She was, as her obituary said, “there to see the opportunities and be part of the solution,” transforming numerous local organizations along the way.
Oakland is among the Montanans, ages 7 months to 105 years, whose lives and legacies we honor today. For many, only after they died did we learn through their obituaries about their adventures, service, love and legacies.
Remembered for overcoming hardship
The daughter of Dutton homesteaders, Molly Munro, 91, started college in the 1940s and finished at age 60 with a B.A. in sociology from Carroll College. She held major offices in numerous community organizations and was on the national AARP legislative council.
MSU professor Lauren McKinsey, 74, was involved with Montana’s 1972 Constitutional Convention, and collaborated on the book “We The People Of Montana” and did important work on the US-Canada relationship. At 45, he had a stroke that left him feeling trapped and unable to communicate as he wanted. For 30 years, he struggled but friends remembered him as an inspiration, a good man and a true friend.
Left a paraplegic after a car wreck when he was a teenager, Thomas “Tomahawk” Bird, 40, whose Blackfeet name was Aaksikaamotaan “Great Escape,” decided he would take on the responsibility of living independently, earning the nickname “Super-Quad” for his hard work making the most of his life and capacity.
Ruth Sink, 87, was 8 when her father died, leaving her mother with four young children on the farm. She was no stranger to hard work when she and her husband tried to scrape out a living north of Whitewater from one of the last homesteads in Montana. They eventually sold the land and bought the Park Cafe in Fairfield. She made great quilts, “historic” pies and cinnamon rolls, started water fights, built forts, fixed bikes, sewed school clothes and gave haircuts to half the neighborhood children.
Born in Fort Belknap to Lakota/Chippewa parents, John Contway, 63, had a heartbreaking career as a social worker and therapist tending to traumatized Native children in Montana and Alaska. He suffered a series of strokes that took his singing voice, deformed his hand, destroyed his ability to play guitar and nearly froze his facial features on one side.
Born with brittle bone disease, Ed Myers III, 56, never let his illness stop him from doing what he loved: studying history, traveling, advocating for those with disabilities and living independently. The Great Falls native “wanted to live, and live he did.”
Remembering those who served their country
The son of homesteaders, Earl Bahr of Chinook came into the world the day after Christmas 96 years ago while his dad nervously awaited the midwife’s arrival. He lived most of his life on that homestead nurturing a big family but earned a bronze star for heroism and a purple heart as a Marine in the Pacific.
Former beer distributor, Conrad city councilman, Lion, Legionnaire, air ambulance partner and Jaycee Boss of the Year 1978, George Ellingson, who died at 92, was two weeks into his senior year of high school in Brady when he was drafted into the Army, where he served in Europe with the 59th Armored Infantry “Black Cats,” part of General Patton’s 13th Armored Division in World War II and earned the sharpshooter badge and the bronze star. He was preparing to be deployed to the Pacific when the war ended.
“He was one of the best from the Greatest Generation,” his obituary read. “He showed all of his family how to enjoy every minute of life, how to love and be loved, and make friends and treat them like family.”
Farmer/rancher Ted Garnett, 97, joined the guard for a little extra money, not realizing soon war would take him and Montana’s 163rd Infantry Regiment all the way to Papua New Guinea, where he got typhus, malaria and shrapnel from an errant blast that injured him so badly he was medically discharged – and feeling lucky to be alive.
Brady farmer Chester Heien, 99, flew 56 missions over North Africa, Italy and the Balkans with the Army Air Corps during World War II. He was a mission leader on bombing raids into the Ploiesti oil fields of Romania, oil vital to the Nazi war effort, and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and five bronze stars.
After a hardscrabble upbringing, Mel Mantzey, who died at 90, signed up for the Marine Corps in 1945 and never got over the terror of the night rotations fighting Chinese Communist soldiers at Hsin Ho. An entrepreneur behind many ventures, Mantzey bought the O’Haire Motor Inn in the 1970s with partners, whom he bought out in 1994. Two years later, the mermaids arrived, though he warned Sip ‘n Dip manager Sandra Johnson Thares “You will regret this one.”
After graduating with the first class to graduate C.M. Russell High School, Mervin Gunderson, 70, served as a crew chief for helicopters during the Korean War. A member of the Montana State University police force, he was a major backer for youth baseball and bowling.
Lt. Col. (Ret) USAF, Thomas Wilson Sr., 94, of Great Falls was a navigator and bombardier in the nose of a B-17 “flying fortress” on more than 30 bombing runs over Germany. On the morning of his 21st birthday, his plane was hit and he parachuted into Hungary, where he became a prisoner of war. Fed just enough to remain alive, Wilson’s imprisonment ended with the site of Patton’s tanks. The famous general asked him how he was. “Just fine, sir,” he replied.
Malta farmer Earl Wasson, 101, built the first landing strip on Omaha Beach at the beginning of Operation Overlord, Invasion of Normandy with the U.S. Army 877 Arbonne Engineer Aviation Battalion and reached Kitzingen, Germany at the end of World War II.
Air Force veteran and gifted mechanic Larry Kiedrowski, 71, built elaborate carts during the years he lived on the streets of Great Falls. A farm boy from Hogeland and the firstborn of seven, he excelled, a straight-A student, who continued on to Northern Montana College and then went into the U.S. Air Force. He married and had children before developing schizophrenia.
Dupuyer rancher Jack Hayne, 97, served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, reaching Australia, New Guinea and Okinawa. He was passionate about local history, and he organized the Grizzly Day parade into his 90s. While his wife, Harriet, served as a state legislator, he was her chief of staff “giving their constituents two for the price of one.”
A “hell of a hand,” Howard Largent, 92, was 17 when he enlisted in the Marine Corps, part of Division 6, the only Marine division ever formed and disbanded overseas. The Sun River Valley veteran survived despite casualties all around him, and witnessed the end of World War II aboard the U.S.S. Missouri. He shoed horses until age 67, repaired well pumps into his 90s, stacked perfect bales of hay, castrated calves at neighborhood brandings and baked a mighty good pie. His 4-year-old granddaughter, Briley, sang to him as he took his last breath.
A Marine veteran who often ended his calls with “Semper Fi,” Donald Luwe, 89, was a Cub Scout pack leader, baseball coach and co-founder of the Roadrunners Track Club. He helped organized the Ice Breaker and other road races.
The first Air Force assignment Lee Mongeon, 88, had took him to England. His 26-year-career took him to Australia, Christmas Island, Alaska and 135 combat recon missions in Vietnam. After retirement, he and his wife bought Holter Lake Lodge, providing recreational opportunities to anglers.
Former Bozeman police chief George Tate, 85, enlisted in the Marine Corps as a senior and returned home four months later after being seriously wounded in a mortar attack in Korea. His family remembered him as kind, gentle, quiet, musical and shy, using humor to disarm people.
Former state legislator Paul Ringling, 97, grew up on a ranch near White Sulphur Springs. He left the family circus to serve in World War II in North Africa with a signal corps and then in Italy, where he worked as a high-speed radio operator in a counterintelligence unit with the Air Corps, detecting codes transmitted by the German Luftwaffe. He didn’t see his wife of 65 years for the first three years of their marriage. They later sold their part of the family ranch and moved to Ekalaka.
Remembered for worthwhile work
Dr. Richard Buker Jr., 93, decided to practice medicine in a town that really needed a doctor. That brought him to Chester, where he worked for nearly 50 years. He delivered as many as 100 babies a year, and seldom had a full night’s sleep, also mentoring young doctors in country medicine.
A longtime member of the Valier Volunteer Fire Department, Douglas Bowman, 66, was a building contractor who restored his town’s original jail and turned the historic stone school into a bed and breakfast. He often said, “People are good,” and loved meeting travelers from around the world who stayed at the inn.
A former stenographer for Sen. Mike Mansfield and public health nurse, Dorothy Kinsey, 92, of Hays was a Gros Ventre bilingual and cultural teacher in Harlem and Hays/Lodgepole, working until her eyesight started failing in her 80s.
Martha “Marky” Jones, 101, was a Cut Bank newspaper columnist and teacher, who loved hearing from former students who said they appreciated her contributions to their education and their character. She lived long enough to have a great-great-grandchild.
Former Cascade County Attorney J. Fred Bourdeau, 94, prosecuted many of the county’s most difficult murder cases, worked to combat drugs and organized crime and was honored at his retirement by the Indian Action Council for his efforts improving communications for Native Americans in the justice system.
Ruthann Knudson, 76, became interested in Native American history and culture while working as a seasonal ranger in Mesa Verde and Yellowstone national parks. She had a fascinating career in anthropology, became superintendent of the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument and in “retirement” was director of the Friends of the Museum of the Plains Indians, taught online courses at Great Falls College MSU, was part of the Upper Missouri River Heritage Area Planning Board and the Great Falls/Cascade County Historic Preservation Commission. She was a speaker through the Humanities Montana Speakers Bureau and an expert at flint-knapping.
Harvey McKelvey, 89, spent a year helping develop Nigeria’s telephone network.
“Mr. Spice,” Mark Southard, 74, owned Alpine Touch for 23 years and moved the spice company from Whitefish to Choteau, where it remains.
Working in newspapers took Dick Crockford, 65, to Shelby, Boulder, Anaconda, Hardin and finally Dillon. He made an annual trip to Tijuana to build houses, promoted reading at Head Start and devoted many hours to other local causes.
The Sun River Valley’s Donnie Jacobsen, 78, began her teaching career in Brady and continued for 42 years at Lincoln School in Great Falls. She “kept her students’ hearts tucked inside of her own. Room 3 was a safe, inviting place to be for students and faculty alike. It was the hub where everyone wanted to gather,” according to her obituary.
Big Sandy farmer Leo Bitz, 84, ran a caterpillar for the first time at age 8 and a combine for the last time just last year. The boys he coached in Little League called him “Yogi,” and he helped found a junior high football program.
Twenty-eight-year Carroll College head football coach and Hall of Famer, Bob Petrino Sr., 81, was Frontier Coach of the Year 13 times.
A Geraldine icon, funny and kind of heart, Georgianna Johnstone, 65, was a bar owner.
Jean Stengem, 86, was director of volunteers at Columbus Hospital in Great Falls and of the RSVP program in Kalispell. A highlight was meeting the President in the White House Rose Garden when one of her volunteers was honored as volunteer of the year.
Conrad’s Bill May, 99, was a Ninth Judicial District Court reporter for 35 years, retiring in 1985 with the distinction of having served longer than any elected or appointed official in Pondera, Teton, Glacier and Toole counties.
Born in Yugoslavia, Marie Kovacich, 105, was quarantined for a month in Ellis Island in 1920, came to Lewistown by train and took a wagon to a homestead at Mecaha in the Missouri Breaks. She and her husband ranched, farmed and logged.
Father Robert Noonan, 79, who ministered to parishioners in Choteau, Fairfield, Augusta, Seeley Lake, Kalispell and other places in Montana with a passion for life and people.
Leo Kennerly III, 56, coached in Browning and Heart Butte, where his Warriors compiled a 26-0 record and the 2000 Class C boys basketball championship. Through the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, he worked to develop Stampede Park, Glacier Casino and Glacier Family Foods, also serving on the Blackfeet Land Buy-Back Program and chairing the Department of Allied Health at Blackfeet Community College.
Remembered for their public service
Former Choteau Mayor Jack Conatser, 69, received a meritorious service award from the Montana Highway Patrol for personal dedication and concern for human life. He coached Little League for more than 20 years, was an EMT and volunteered with the Lions Club, helping the organization build a new pool.
Harriet Friesen, 90, volunteered with the Roosevelt County Welfare Office as foster parents for newborns and children waiting to be adopted or returned to their parents.
“Mr. Rivers Edge Trail,” Doug Wicks, 74, died cutting branches along the trail, a project he helped turn from an idea to the nearly 60-mile pathway it is today.
Former Lt. Governor, W. Gordon McOmber, 98, was a farmer, chairman of the committee that built the Fairfield Community Hall, served 11 sessions in the legislature, was director of the Montana Department of Agriculture and chairman of the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission.
Butte icon John D. Lynch, 71, had a gift for settling conflict and at age 22 became the youngest person ever elected to the Legislature out of Silver-Bow County. A teacher, he also served in the legislature for a quarter century.
Businessman Bob Rowe, 96, was a Mason, a former Elk of the Year and a charter member of the Optimist Club of Great Falls. In 1977, he was president of the Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce. An active Republican organizer, he was the second person to receive the National Pachyderm’s highest honor, the Tough Tusk Award
Jack Lepley, 89, was a Fort Benton teacher who could count among his contributions to Fort Benton: helping form the Montana Agricultural Center, erecting the Lewis and Clark Statue during the nation’s bicentennial, creating the Shep Memorial and the levee trail.
A great admirer of C.M. Russell, Gene Dwyer, 88, renovated the artist’s honeymoon cottage in Cascade.
Bill McClaren, the last living founder of Flathead Valley Community College, died at age 89.
If Conrad furniture salesman Donald Meier, 88, could have had a second career, he would have chosen firefighting. The longtime volunteer fire chief loved the brotherhood and found the work fulfilling. His real gift, though, was in grandparenting. He told his grandchildren, “The best job I ever had was walking you to school.”
A generous and well-respected businessman and community leader, Ray Christiaens of Kevin at 55 died in an accident at the family cabin on Echo Lake. He had a gift for helping people believe in themselves and others.
Loretta Lee Pepion, 76, worked at the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning for 37 years, beginning as clerk-typist and retiring as curator.
One of Hal Brown’s favorite phrases was “Turn the Crank,” which meant pick a direction and get there as quick as possible. A “goer and doer,” Brown started the Fort Benton Little League in the 1970s, managed the Chouteau County Fair and ran the 4-H livestock auction. He was a leader in Jaycees, Kiwanis, Masons and Shriners. His family established a memorial scholarship in the 75-year-old’s honor at MSU “because of Hal’s strong belief in the value of education.”
Sunburst farmer/rancher Robert Tomsheck, 94, served for more than 13 years as a Toole County Commissioner, writing grants to build the Marias Medical Center, Clinic and Care Center, the Toole County Sherriff’s Office, and improved many county roads. He represented the Montana Farmer’s Union at President Eisenhower’s inauguration, served on many community boards and was a first responder.
Former Toole County sanitarian Karen Salo, 66, had a deep love for animals, taking in strays and rescuing baby birds fallen from their nests during storms. She founded the Prairie Oasis animal shelter in Shelby.
World War II opened opportunities for women to join the workforce and gave Clary Cory her break in the Great Falls news business. The 96-year-old former columnist and “Dusty’s Sprinkler Lady” on TV served on local boards and in organizations, particularly the Great Falls Advertising Club, where she was a member for 50 years.
Remembered for adventures
Great Falls trucker Wally Hartman, 80, began many spur-of-the-moment Saturday morning trips with the words: “Get up – let’s go make a memory.”
Known as “Mr. Bobcat,” devoted MSU booster Dan Keil, 78, was an innovative farmer who founded Tri-Angle Agricultural Supply, was an early adopter of no-till farming and precision ag using GPS. The Conrad man taught American farming in Japan as a Kellogg Fellow and was a Peace Corps volunteer to Sierra Leone teaching English. One of his greatest passions was to bring water to rural areas, and he testified before Congress on water issues during his 37 years as a director for the National Rural Water Association.
A caring Great Falls doctor Elton Adams, 74, died doing what he loved, climbing. During decades of outdoor adventures, he inspired others to camp, climb, hike, ski and explore the state.
Cancer took Great Falls native and metal fabricator Zane Kirkhuff at age 50. He spent a dozen years traveling the world doing installations for famous glass artist Dale Chihuly.
Traveling nurse Dolores Lehman, 76, of Power competed in ballroom dancing at the national level.
Former Cut Bank gas station owner Kenny “Pistol” Fetters, 87, started working at age 12 for Tubb’s Garage and Oil in Harlem. He showed his zest for life with his willingness to be a part of any adventure (he was usually the instigator).
A former Billings farm boy, Joe “Popeye“ Mitchell, 95, drove John Wayne, the king and queen of Nepal, first lady Lady Bird Johnson and many other Yellowstone visitors during his 35 years behind the wheel of an iconic yellow tour bus.
Tana Boland, 66, was a “bartender by trade and a photographer by passion.” She wrote to her loved ones: “Every time you see a sunrise or sunset, or the flowing reflection of something in the water, that will be my way of saying I’m here and I love you!”
Madeline McCracken, 105, was “Grandmother of the Year” in 1985.
Englishwoman Doreen Richard, 92, entertained the troops with Carmen Miranda impressions during World War II. She married a G.I. and moved to a Loma homestead, teaching herself to cook and thrive on the prairie.
Shelby’s Sophia Kubis, 92, was born on a Polish farm and taken to a German work farm during World War II, where she married a captured Polish soldier and had the first three of six children. After liberation, she was able to come to the United States.
Patrick Eckman, 69, bought an abandoned church in Basin and turned it into Basin Creek Pottery. He was a volunteer with the fire department and served on the school board. An explorer at heart, he took his family on many road trips to Canada and across the West.
He said of his life: “It’s been a fascinating trip of exploration and discovery in such a simple way. Working with dirt and rocks. We are clay. We come from the very substance the earth is created from.”
Through his work as director of the Friendship Center in Helena, in the Montana Department of Justice Office of Consumer Protection and Victim Services and as a national consultant on domestic violence issues, Matthew Dale, 59, saved lives. He traveled to much of the world and read almost all of the “historical point of interest” signs across Montana’s highways.
Arlee beekeeper and artist Janet McGahan, 73, connected with people through art on visits to India, Bolivia, Peru, China, Mexico, Cuba and Haiti. She raised her family of six children on humor, very little money and the occasional ice cream soda.
McGahan was “was a great appreciator, which meant she was always rich. She was always excited to do, see or learn something new, which meant she was always young,” her family wrote. “She stayed to the end of a party and always left with everyone thinking she loved them most of all.” She had “some wonderful furnace inside her generated inexhaustible supplies of love. You only had to see the flash of her smile to know she was crackling with it.”
Remembering those gone too soon
Her name meant happiness and her middle name was Joy, perfect for a baby whose smile lit up a room. Felicity Skipper of Great Falls, who died in her sleep at 7 months old, was a happy baby who loved being cuddled and whose laugh “would make the sourest of people” smile.
Shelby darling Penelope Hintz, 3, “was a sweet, magical child whose special talent was weaving together the hearts and joy of those who knew her.” Clever and sassy, she fought hard against her illness.
All 16-year-old Heavyn TalksAbout of Browning “ever wanted was to be happy and make someone’s day.” She was an outgoing, joyful person.
Kalispell Marine Donavon Macura, 20, collapsed on a training run in Okinawa, Japan, where he was stationed. He was a standout wrestler for Glacier High School and team captain his senior year, always kind and supportive of younger wrestlers.
Another wrestler, J.J. Werdal, 21, placed at state four times, helping Choteau High School bring home a state championship his senior year. His obituary described him as “an unselfish athlete who displayed exemplary sportsmanship, whether winning or losing.” Positive and outgoing, he made friends easily and cheered up those who were blue.
TV camera operator Chris Casson, 22, will be remembered for his smile and huge heart. His motto was, “It doesn’t cost anything to be nice to people.”
Seventeen-year-olds Ruthie Kaufman and Lizzy Mentzer of Lewistown died in a car wreck in August. Ruthie loved art, drawing, cooking, animals and her family. A talented artist with strong values and beautiful heart, Lizzy looked forward to going to MSU.
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