Chicago Man Gathers Rural Montana Obituaries

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Richard Woods anchored himself in a Chicago library to read obituaries published years ago in the newspaper that covered life and death in the remote slice of Montana where he grew up.

The retired college professor set out to research his family’s history that unfolded in the farm town of Saco, about 45 miles from the Saskatchewan border, but soon Woods became immersed in the obituaries of strangers — the decorated World War I hero killed in 1938 by police gunfire in Helena, the teenage girl whose life ended in 1933 after an “illegal operation.” There was an obituary for Chet Huntley, the television newscaster who left NBC in 1970, returned to Montana and died of cancer in 1974 while developing a resort at Big Sky. Huntley’s parents homesteaded north of Saco.

Those obits are among the 800 to 1,000 that Woods has compiled in a 398-page hardback, “Obituaries from the Saco Independent, Saco, Montana, 1912-1975.” He produced several copies of the book and recently gave one to the Phillips County Museum in Malta, west of Saco, for reference. The museum is free to reproduce all or part of the book for anyone interested, and keep whatever money might be collected, he said.

Woods, who taught Spanish at Trinity University in Texas and retired to Chicago, requested the Montana Historical Society Library loan newspaper microfilms to Chicago’s Harold Washington Library. There he spent hours reading old editions of The Saco Independent, a newspaper that no longer exists, and made copies of the material he wanted.

“I love obituaries — they give you a lot of the culture” of a place, Woods said.

He spent about a year on the project, pulling together obits that reveal the rigors of homesteading on the northern Montana plains, and the toll when many miles separate members of a family. In one, long distances or big responsibilities apparently left four sons unable to attend their father’s funeral.

Woods appreciates obituaries in major newspapers such as The New York Times, obits in which “you are indeed evaluated — ‘not all of his plays were great'” — but he also enjoys small newspapers’ write-ups that often put a patina, warranted or not, on the life of the deceased. Readers are smart enough to not necessarily buy the “everyone loved him” line, said Woods, who finds these obits provide a snapshot of a person’s life. “You married ‘X’ and you had five children and all but one showed up for the funeral,” he said. “Nobody was ever turned down at your ranch; anybody who ever came hungry got something to eat.”

Among The Saco Independent obituaries, those vividly in his mind include that of George Whitcomb, the World War I hero killed in Helena. The obit reported that a restaurant proprietor who witnessed his shooting disputed the police claim of self-defense. A coroner’s jury exonerated the officer of any wrongdoing, however.

The college degrees held by Woods, 74, include one in librarianship.

“I had an idea of how to put a reference book together,” he said by telephone last week from Chicago, where he lives a short walk from the Loop. “Whether I did the best job possible, I don’t know. It (the book) exists now, and it didn’t exist before.”

Phillips County Museum Curator Sharon Emond finds the book of obituaries an excellent resource for people who use the museum for genealogical research.

“A lot of people come looking for where their grandparents homesteaded,” Emond said.

Woods, the son of grain farmers, was 25 when he left Saco permanently. But Saco never really left him.

“Where you spent your first 20 or 25 years is what made you,” he said.

“Whenever I’m critical of something — bad service in a restaurant — I say, ‘You can get away with that in Chicago, but never in Saco.’ It set a standard that very few people can meet.”

Now Woods is writing essays about northern Montana’s rolling country crossed by the railroad tracks on which BNSF transports freight and Amtrak’s Chicago-Seattle train transports people. His writings include a look at how the Works Progress Administration, the government’s 1930s relief program, influenced the arts on the state’s northern tier.

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