Kalispell’s Legendary Doctor Earns Highest Civic Honor

By Beacon Staff

Dr. Van Kirke Nelson once delivered six babies in a single day. All together, he personally delivered more than 4,900 newborns throughout his 41-year career as a physician in Kalispell.

“But the quality of Kirke’s career cannot be measured in numbers,” U.S. Sen. Max Baucus said on July 15, 2002, on the Senate floor in Washington, D.C., following the announcement that Nelson was retiring.

“Every day he changed lives and made the Flathead Valley and Montana a better place to live.”

Indeed, Nelson touched countless lives.

In 1962, he became Kalispell’s first medical specialist to set up practice as an OB-GYN and later helped establish the Flathead Outpatient Surgical Center, essentially laying the foundation for Northwest Montana’s modern health care services.

He mentored many of the valley’s next generation of young doctors.

He regularly traveled to the Blackfeet Reservation to provide health services to those in need.

He fought in the political arena for patients who were not receiving appropriate care and was the largest provider for the pregnant Medicaid population in the valley, never turning away anyone.

He helped co-found the ALERT Air Ambulance, one of the state’s first hospital-based helicopters that now transports more than 300 patients a year and provides life support and care over a 350-mile range. Montana’s first rural emergency air service, ALERT has saved more than 1,420 lives. Just this spring, Nelson stepped down from the organization’s board of directors at age 82.

Tom Lund | Courtesy photo

This week the Flathead Valley’s legendary patron doctor was anointed the city’s Great Chief, the oldest and most prestigious honor in the Kalispell community. Nelson is the 42nd recipient of the lifetime achievement award, which recognizes someone whose civic and volunteer spirit shaped a legacy for the community.

“There’s no one more deserving for this honor,” Joe Unterreiner, president of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, told the crowd of more than 500 people at the 109th annual chamber banquet at the Hilton Garden Inn on Nov. 14.

Nelson received the honor and standing ovation along with his wife, Helen.

The sold-out event featured other award presentations, including honors for outstanding business leaders.

Tom Lund, president of Rocky Mountain Bank, was named Businessman of the Year. Lund was the founding president of Rocky Mountain Bank in Kalispell in 2004. Today the bank has over 800 customers and is a thriving member of the local business community. Lund has remained actively engaged in the community by serving as a board member for the Urban Renewal Agency, Montana West Economic Development, West Side Tax Increment Board and School District 5 Long Range Planning Committee.

“He brings energy and enthusiasm to work every day. He adds value to each of his employees by empowering them,” said Dee Kirk, a mortgage loan officer at Rocky Mountain Bank. “He doesn’t want any of his employees to settle for mediocrity and inspires them to lead themselves to being the best they can be.”

Debbie Kramer | Courtesy photo

Debbie Kramer, vice president of operations at Three Rivers Bank of Montana, was named Businesswoman of the Year.

Kramer, who is also co-owner of Kramer Enterprises, Inc., has been at Three Rivers Bank for 25 years and has helped the bank thrive. She remains actively involved in the community and co-founded Flathead Operation Finally Home, which builds free homes for wounded and disabled veterans, and co-founded Operation Santa, which sends presents and supplies to military units overseas. She has also been involved in Habitat for Humanity, the Glacier Institute, United Way, the Flathead Building Association and other civic organizations.

“Debbie’s contributions are tremendous to our community, Kramer Enterprises, Inc., and Three Rivers Bank of Montana,” said A.J. King, president of Three Rivers.

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