James Louis Belli, 58, passed away in the early morning hours of March 13, 2021, in Bozeman, MT. He was born July 7, 1962, to Roy and Sara Belli at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and grew up in military bases along the east coast, graduating from high school in Fairfax, VA.
Jim attended one year at Mount Saint Mary’s University and one year at Virginia Tech before embarking on his journey of self-education. He was well-read in multiple subjects, was articulate, meticulous, and had a superior command of the English language.
In the mid-1980’s, Jim worked for the U.S. Forest service in Idaho and Wyoming during the summer and in construction and a variety of other jobs in the western states in the winter. He moved back to Virginia a few years later and became the foreman of a sod crew before working in a vineyard.
He was hired as a gardener at President Monroe’s 1200-acre Oak Hill retirement estate near Aldie, VA, and worked into the head-gardener position, living on the estate for several years, during which he rehabilitated the extensive, formal gardens adjacent to the mansion.
Later, he moved to Tenino, WA where he bought, rehabilitated, and sold a plant nursery. Subsequently he moved to Olympia, WA, where he developed his own gardening business. During this period, he survived a shattered neck vertebra and a heart valve replacement. Jim moved to Bozeman, MT in 2014, and was hired by Xanterra Corporation as an interpretive guide for Yellowstone National Park with his encyclopedic knowledge of the Park flora and fauna. Jim educated and entertained many Park visitors, making close friends with employees. He worked in the off-season, collecting data for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks until the time of his passing.
Jim was an avid birder and member of the Sacajawea Audubon Society of Bozeman. He loved to cook, drink good wine, read, and listen to folk and classical music. He was a skilled photographer. He traveled to Italy and the UK and made friends wherever he went. Jim had an intense pragmatic and simplistic approach to life, but not without a sense of humor, typically with a wink or side-glance. He loved to camp out in remote locations in Yellowstone and other parts of Montana, often solo, to be one with Mother Nature. His passing came as a shock to many.
When Jim was 12 years old, he contracted Hodgkin lymphoma and underwent intensive radiation therapy. In 2017, he developed post-radiation syndrome, which paralyzed his right hand and arm and atrophied much of his body mass. He met this challenge heroically, adapting living strategies, and never looking back. Then in early February 2021, he began to lose mobility and was diagnosed with a fast-moving rare cancer that proved to be untreatable.
He was preceded in death by his mother, Sara Vilm Belli (2009), and younger brother, John (2001), who died following a car crash which also took the lives of John’s wife, Lynne, and their young daughter, Nicole. He is survived by his father, Colonel Roy Belli USMC (Ret) of Lancaster, PA, and a sister, Linda Hess of Stafford, VA.
A private memorial service will be held in Wyoming in July at a location which Jim had chosen. Donations to honor Jim’s life may be made to the Sacajawea Audubon Society.
Arrangements are in the care of Dokken-Nelson Funeral Service. www.dokkennelson.com[dokkennelson.com]