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Thursday, the 28th, I got the call. You know the call. It's the one I've been dreading for some time now, since my father's stroke in December of 2009. That call was bad enough. But it was the call, from my dad's phone, my mother telling me that he was gone. She said she had gone to her afternoon bridge game, and left him set up like he preferred in his easy chair, probably watching Fox News, his glass of water and PB&J next to him on his TV tray, and when she came home, he looked like he had just taken a nap, and hadn't woken up. He went peacefully, and it didn't appear that he had any pain or struggle, so essentially, the way we all would probably prefer to go.

Dad at Christmas 2015, photo by Leslie Bohle

I've spent the last couple of days remembering, crying, laughing, traveling, sorting, regretting, rejoicing and just mourning. I made it home to help my mom make funeral arrangements, answer phone calls, clean out cabinets, all the things you do when your dad dies.

Mom asked me to think about his obituary on the flight, so I would open my tablet, start taking down thoughts, become overwhelmed and then stop. Of course, on my flight from Minneapolis to Billings, I was surrounded on all sides by people who knew my parents. How do you write something succinct about someone who had such a colorful and rich life? And how do you do it in a way that every other news service hasn't already done it?

So, in the late evening on Friday, after a day of travel for me and a day of visitors and condolence calls for my mother, we sat down to write his obituary.

Here was our first draft:

On April 28, 2016, Conrad Burns died peacefully in his home at 81 years old. He was well known to Montanans for his service in the US Senate from 1989 to 2007.

His funeral is next Friday at the Metra.

We thought maybe that was a little bit spare. So after about 15 minutes of hysterical laughter, that laughter you only experience while in the depths of grief and exhaustion, we decided to fill in a few more details. But we didn't want to just re-hash all of the biographical information already being shared by local news stations or even a few national press pieces. We wanted something that was more familiar, more humorous, more. . . well, more dad.

source: Washington Post, dad with constituents in 2006

So, after a few edits and a few laughs, we decided to be a little less formal with our obituary and to focus on the non-political:

  • His favorite story about when he started dating my mom, who he had met during his time with the Polled Hereford Association. Her dad sold Polled Hereford bulls, he attended the sales, and she caught his eye.

  • How he used to tell us about his exploits as a handball player until a biceps muscle tear forced him to quit playing.

  • How he and mom took trips long before his political days as tour escorts for a local travel agency that took them all over. Notably, it took the two of them, but never us kids. We got to stay home with babysitters and hope they would bring us cool gifts, which, to their credit, they usually did.

  • How he adored his grandchildren.

So, here's the obituary we finally decided to go with. It's not your standard retired US Senator's obituary, but then again, he wasn't your standard senator. At least not in our minds, anyway.

On April 28, 2016, Conrad Burns died peacefully in his home in Billings. He was well known to Montanans for his service in the US Senate from 1989 to 2007. His history, from his birth in 1935 in Gallatin, MO, to his military service, to his various jobs prior to and including politics, has been outlined in a number of articles on the news of his passing.

In the early 60's, Conrad moved to Montana. It was there he married Phyllis Kuhlmann, whom he met previously at her father's bull sales in North Platte, NE while he was working for Polled Hereford Association.

To hear him tell it, when he moved to Billings and discovered that Phyllis had also moved there to teach, he called her up to ask her to a movie and she responded, "Yes, I'll marry you." (Her version of the story is a little different: she had her roommate turn him down because she had stayed home that day with laryngitis.)

Before entering politics, Conrad was a bit of a jack-of-all-trades: cattle trader, auctioneer, high school football referee, radio and television ag broadcaster.

He participated in Rotary and the Al Bedoo Shrine, both in the marching corps and the Black Horse Patrol. He was an avid golfer and a world traveler. Did you know that during his broadcasting years, he and Phyllis used to escort groups on trips with Blue Caboose Tour Agency? They went to Australia, New Zealand and Fiji 5 times, as well as on cruises with destinations such as the Panama Canal, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii. He had visited every state in the US and every continent on the planet. Not bad for a kid who grew up on a farm he used to refer to as "two rocks and one dirt" in northwestern Missouri.

You may have read about Conrad's accolades during his time in the US Senate, including championing small business, rural telecommunications, conservation and agriculture issues. You may not be aware that he is also in the Montana Handball Hall of Fame. At least he used to tell us he is, we're not even sure there is a Montana Handball Hall of Fame. But if there is, he'd sure be in it.

He attended a few years of college at University of Missouri, and has a number honorary degrees, including one from The School of Hard Knocks, presented to him by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV). The telecommunications center in the engineering department at Montana State University is even named after him. He didn't graduate college, instead opting to leave school and join the US Marine Corps. He was often asked what he got his degree in, and would usually say that he had an NDBA: No Degree, but Boss Anyway.

In addition to his wife, Phyllis, of Billings, he will be missed by his daughter, Dr. Keely Godwin and her husband Noah, of Durham, NC, and his son, Garrett Burns and his wife, Kate, of Alexandria, VA, as well as his sister, Judy Norris, of Middlebrook, VA. He also leaves three grandchildren, Ella Godwin (10), Isobel Burns (6), and Riley Burns (1). He was pretty sure that they were the best grandchildren God ever gave a man, and we are inclined to agree with him.

At the pearly gates, he will be greeted by his parents, Russell and Mary Frances Burns, his brother-in-law, Stan Norris, as well as his daughter, Kate, who passed away at age of 15 in 1985. This is in addition to the dear friends and relatives who have gone ahead, including one of his best friends in the US Senate, Ted Stevens of Alaska (1923-2010), who probably already has the poker game and cigars set up and waiting for him.

Visitation will be Thursday, May 5th, from 5 to 8pm at Smith Funeral Home, at 925 S. 27th St, Billings.

Funeral services will be held at 11 am on Friday, May 6th, at the MetraPark Arena. Instead of sending flowers, his family would prefer that you make a donation to the charitable organization of your choice. If you can't pick one, then we recommend either the Shriner's Hospitals for Children, your local food bank, or the Kate Burns Memorial Scholarship at Atonement Lutheran Church in Billings, MT.


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