Kathleen Schweitzer, Governor’s Mother, Dies at 83

By Beacon Staff

Kathleen Helen Schweitzer, the mother of Gov. Brian Schweitzer and the daughter of Montana homesteaders, died Sunday. She was 83.

She died following a fall on Friday morning when she became tangled in her miniature schnauzer’s leash on a visit to the veterinarian in Helena and banged her head, the Montana governor said.

She was initially taken to a hospital in Helena and seemed OK, the governor said, but was later transferred to Benefis Medical System in Great Falls after doctors realized she had suffered a broken blood vessel. She slipped into a coma from which she didn’t emerge and died at 12:15 a.m.

She lived independently in her own home and had driven herself and her dog to the vet Friday. The governor’s father, 89-year-old Adam Schweitzer, died of natural causes in December 2009.

“In life, you play the cards you’re dealt, not the ones you wish you were dealt,” the governor said, pausing to keep his emotions in check. “She never would have wanted to be taken care of by someone else. Not living in her own house. So you can figure she went out on top, the way she’d want.”

He credited his mother with much of the family’s success, noting all six of her children obtained college degrees and four of them advanced degrees.

“She was a fighter,” he said. “She was competitive. There wasn’t anything in her entire life that she didn’t strive to get there first and do the best, and that applied to everyone around her.”

He said that his mother and father only had the opportunity to make it through eighth grade, but were among the most innovative of Montana ranchers and were some of the first to use embryo transfer as a way to improve their cattle herd.

“She could drive a tractor, bail hay, wrestle a calf, AI (artificially inseminate) a cow,” he said. “I don’t think there was anybody in the family that had a better eye for cattle. She’s a big reason why the family was so successful in the beef business.”

Kathleen Schweitzer, who went by Kay, was born September 24, 1927, on a farm near Box Elder, Mont., to Michael and Hannah McKernan, who came to the United States from Ireland in the early 1900s.

On her birthday in 1946, she married Adam Schweitzer in a double wedding that included her younger sister, Pat, who married Adam Schweitzer’s best friend, Ray Warhank.

The Schweitzers farmed and ranched north of Gildford near the Canadian border and later in central Montana near Geyser, traveling to five continents during that time promoting their beef business.

The governor said his mother didn’t encourage him to go into elective politics, but in their home growing up they had a crucifix on the wall, next to a picture of President John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president, and a statue of the Blessed Virgin. She remained interested in politics throughout her life.

“She was Irish through and through,” the governor said. “And dang tootin’ she mixed politics with religion. She stayed engaged. She had an opinion on everything that had to do with politics. Some she loved, some of them not so much.”

And she didn’t mind letting her son know her political leanings.

“Every morning while most of Montana was asleep, she’d call me and tell me, by golly, what I ought to get done today,” he said. “She’d already read the papers, and she had some ideas about what ought to happen, PDQ.”

U.S. Sen. Max Baucus of Montana offered his condolences to the Schweitzer family, saying in a statement that “Kay was a true Montanan who touched the lives of so many. Her spirit, strength and grit will be missed by all of us.”

A rosary is planned Aug. 31 at the Retz Funeral Home in Helena. A funeral is planned for 10:30 a.m. Sept. 1 at the Catholic Cathedral in Helena. She will be buried next to her husband that day in Havre, in Hill County, where both she and her husband were born.

Kathleen Schweitzer was survived by the couple’s six children: Darwin, Warren, Mike, the governor, Walter and Mary; 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.