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In the early quiet hours of Saturday morning, December 31, 2022, Ralph Lee Lenhart, age 92 died peacefully at the Rutledge Home in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin from complications of COVID-19.
Ralph was born at the height of the depression in Durand, Wisconsin on October 18,1930 to Clifford and Helga (Opsahl) Lenhart, the 7th of 8 children. It wasn’t long before tragedy struck the family. Ralph was orphaned and alone at the age of seven. Mabel Enger, the sister of Ralph’s mother, took a train from her farm near Oakes, North Dakota to Durand and brought him back home. It was there that Ralph got a new family and a fresh start in life milking cows, fencing, farming, and hunting.
Little did Ralph know that a bus ride in his middle teen years to visit an aunt at a lake in Minnesota would forever change his life. The girl with whom he shared a seat, after almost a decade of correspondence, would become the love of his life, his wife and life partner. As Shirley recalled, “When I got on the bus, he smiled at me and I immediately saw his kindness and felt safe.”
After graduating from Oakes High School, Ralph took Mabel’s guidance to heart and enrolled in the nearby Ellendale Teachers College. After his second year, Ralph’s schooling was interrupted by service in the U.S. Army, which included a tour of duty in West Germany on the Czech border. Upon his return, he completed his degree, opening a path to a career in education. He loved teaching and saw the potential in each of his students.
In 1954 Ralph and Shirley were married at the Little Brown Church and made their home in the Twin Cities. Daughter Nan was born in 1958. Two years later they moved to Glendive, Montana when Ralph was recruited to teach math at Dawson Junior College. A son and daughter, Ned and Kaia were later added to the fold. Ralph and Shirley’s children (and eventually also grandchildren) were always central to their lives.
Their neighbors in Glendive and the families of Zion Lutheran Church became home for Ralph and Shirley. Giving back to the community was a deeply held value. Ralph served as president of Zion and Jaycees, and was an active member of the breakfast Lions Club. He spent many nights and weekends at the Lions Youth Camp fixing the lodge and building cabins for campers. Ralph knew firsthand what it was like to be homeless. When a need for low-income housing was identified in Dawson County, Ralph took the lead and worked for years to build affordable homes for area families.
Ralph sold real estate for many years and also enjoyed crop adjusting with his good friends Doug and Bob. After 40 years at Dawson Community College, Ralph retired from teaching and took his passion for community service up a notch by serving four terms in the Montana State Legislature. As a State Representative, he made many friends and gained much respect by working across the aisle to build bridges to positively impact the families of Eastern Montana. Aside from helping preserve the environmental integrity of Makoshika State Park through a major land agreement, one of his crowning achievements was the creation of yet another space for those in need of shelter: The Eastern Montana Veterans Home in Glendive. Upon retirement from the legislature, Ralph stepped in as interim president of Dawson Community College. He also served for many years on the Montana Coal Board. Throughout his career and life, Ralph was a man of integrity, humility, and empathy.
Family and friendships were central to Ralph’s life – whether at the college, church, Nielsen Realty, or his pickup truck during hunting season, you could always count on Ralph having a hot cup of coffee to share. A lifelong dream was to build a home for his family, which he did and designed it for gatherings of friends and family. Ralph and Shirley loved opening their home to friends new and old – Ralph was known for his Santa Maria Barbecue and welcoming spirit. And all who knew Ralph marveled at the seasonal transformation of his “shop” – in the fall he hung his deer; in the winter he made hundreds of lefse, and in the spring and summer he kept busy with woodworking projects.
Every evening, Ralph and Shirley paused for a glass of red wine at happy hour. They visited, and recounted the events of the day, appreciating life, each other and their family as the setting sun lit the sky with vibrant colors over the badlands of Makoshika.
Ralph is preceded in death by his wife of 65 years, Shirley, and daughter Nan. He is survived by a son Ned (Jill), a daughter Kaia (Jen); and five grandchildren whom he loved and adored: Grace, Clara, Thea, Joshua, and Jayla; a sister Beatrice; brother-in-law George (Barbara); and many nieces and nephews.
The funeral will be held in Glendive later this spring. The family suggests memorials be sent to Zion Lutheran Church in Glendive. Many thanks to the Rutledge Home caregivers and Mayo Clinic Hospice for the exceptional care they provided Ralph.
Family and friends are coming together online to create a special keepsake. Every memory left on the online obituary will be automatically included in this book.
We encourage you to share your most beloved memories of Ralph here, so that the family and other loved ones can always see it. You can upload cherished photographs, or share your favorite stories, and can even comment on those shared by others.