Obituary: John Birdcell Willits

Posted at 1:48 PM, Jun 02, 2018
and last updated 2018-08-03 14:54:08-04

On Memorial Day, May 28, 2018, after a brief illness, John Birdcell Willits, 96, passed away at the Bozeman Lodge after a brief illness.

John was born to Sarah Dunn Willits and Bert Willits on August 30, 1921, in Huron, South Dakota.  While a small child, John lived in Indiana and then moved to Los Angeles. Had it not been for the severe earthquake of March 10, 1933, he and his parents may have remained in sunny California. Instead, they moved to the Big Sky Country.  He lived in Great Falls for 36 years.

John served in both the Army and the Coast Guard. John graduated from Worsham College in Chicago.  While in ‘The Windy City’ he met Helen Louise Sperla, a charming young lady from West Virginia.  They were married on June 14, 1946, in Great Falls at Saint Ann’s Cathedral and raised eight children.  In 1967, to the sorrow of the family, Julie Michelle, the youngest, died at the tender age of six.

John was employed at Croxford Mortuary for six years. He worked for the Great Northern/Burlington Northern Railroad for 22 years. As President of the local Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen, John eventually entered the political arena.  He was a personal friend of Senator Mike Mansfield and State Campaign Chairman for Senator Lee Metcalf.  John was elected to the ’65 and ’67 sessions of the Montana State Legislature and twice ran for Mayor of Great Falls.  It may be a good thing he was defeated or the next fork in the road would probably not have led to Washington, D.C. where in 1968 John was appointed to the National Mediation Board and served for 22 years. After moving to Sun City, John was appointed Chairman of the Phoenix Employment Relations Board.  For several years, he was a snowbird. When he turned 90, John decided to make Bozeman his year-round home.

During the sixties, John started with the Boy Scout Drum & Bugle Corps in Great Falls. His troop performed in many places including the Calgary Stampede and the Seattle World’s Fair.  John was a loyal friend and an eloquent correspondence to the end.  While he didn’t love to dance, he sure did love Lawrence Welk. He treasured old movies, classical music, ballet, and musicals.  John’s various career paths required frequent travel and he was most grateful to Helen for managing the many demands of a large family.  He so appreciated Helen’s devotion to their family.

John and Helen enjoyed entertaining and travel.  They were active in the Friendship Force, hosting and visiting “friends” from around the world.  John was fortunate to have explored over 25 countries. In his later years, John enjoyed riverboat cruises.  When asked, “What was your favorite trip?” John pondered a moment and then quipped “the next one!”  He is now off on his next excursion … Bon Voyage, John!

John is survived by his children, John B. Willits, Jr. (Ardis) of Sun City, AZ, Charles Willits (Nancy) of Houston, TX, Vicki Lint (Val) of Bozeman, MT, Elaine Finger (Marvy) of Houston, TX, Tom Willits of Great Falls, MT, Jane Steranko (Dave) of Pittsburgh, PA, and Laura Grochowski of Bozeman, MT. He was blessed with seven grandchildren, Natasha Marinoff Rider, Christopher Marinoff, Marissa Marinoff Sweeney, Anastasia Steranko, Sally Steranko Knox, Nicolas Grochowski and Jacques Grochowski; as well as great-grandchildren, Tristen and Makayla Marinoff, Isabel and Ethan Rider and James Sweeney.

A Memorial Service will be held at Bozeman Lodge on June 9, 2018, at 2:00 pm.

Arrangements are in the care of Dokken-Nelson Funeral Service.