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Deer Lodge's Frank Shaw embraced his community
Deer Lodge's Frank Shaw embraced his community

DEER LODGE - It didn't seem right, Tuesday of last week, 35 of us standing in the spitting May snow in Hillcrest Cemetery at the edge of Deer Lodge without Frank Shaw.

Most often, the cemetery means Memorial Day. And that means the branches of Deer Lodge families are there with flower boxes to honor the ancestors. In my little branch, Frank usually joined us, with his wife, Thelma. Between them and my own mother - second cousins with Frank - they knew every story behind every stone. And then some.

Frank died on Thursday, May 1. He was 88 and had defied the end of his physical life all winter, probably longer. The graveside service of last week meant that he won't be with us, physically, on our walk through the cemetery on the coming Memorial Day. He won't eat lunch with us at Scharf's or laugh over coffee in his living room. It won't be the same.

Frank's long life - spent since 1940 in Deer Lodge - was marked most by his constant optimism and good cheer and his perennial greeting of every day as a great day full of promise, no matter what, said Ty Robinson, best friends with Frank since they were roommates in the Phi Delta Theta house in 1936 and 1937 as University of Montana students.

"Everybody he met, he was always glad to see them," said Robinson, who went on to become a Missoula attorney. "He loved Deer Lodge and all the people in it."

He knew everybody in the county, his daughter Deirdre Shaw said, from South Valley to Helmville. And Deer Lodge, and Montana, embraced him back.

"Frank was just so loved by everybody," said Lue Tavenner, married to another cousin, Bob.

Frank's mother's family, the Albees, arrived in the Deer Lodge Valley in covered wagons in the hot summer of 1882. With them were my own ancestors on that side, the Williams family. Franks' father, John Shaw, emigrated to Helmville from County Longford, Ireland, in 1893.

Frank was born to Allie and John in Butte in 1915.

Frank grew up in the Potomac Valley and graduated from UM in 1937. There, his beautiful Irish tenor became known, and he performed in college musical events. To this day, my mother remembers Frank's singing at her father's funeral, 56 years ago.

Frank married Thelma Warrington, from Chester, in Missoula in 1938. After Frank traveled for three years for the Continental Oil Co., meeting pretty much everybody in Montana, he and Thelma settled in Deer Lodge in 1940. There, Frank was the local agent of the company. He managed the Conoco bulk plant for 18 years before purchasing, in 1964, his own business. In the Shaw Agency, Frank combined insurance and real estate. Thelma taught English at Powell County High School.

He and Thelma raised four children, Frank W., Scott, P.J. and Deirdre. They were citizens extraordinaire, active in the library and the Powell County Museum and Arts Foundation, gracious keepers of culture. Frank served for 14 years as chairman of School District No. 1 in Deer Lodge. The Shaws earned a Community Service Lifetime Achievement Award from the Deer Lodge Chamber of Commerce in 1997.

Frank and Thelma's love for and knowledge of Montana history and all its people were legendary. It came naturally, said daughter P.J.; Frank's family having crossed the plains in covered wagons and Thelma's parents having homesteaded in Liberty County, they grew up saturated with stories.

Frank had stories from Helmville and Potomac, from Lewistown, from haying in the Big Hole, dances in Wisdom in the 1930s. Old men told him stories, and he carried them on.

"He had stories about dogs, about old people, about ranch hands," P.J. said. "Every single thing has a story, and every single place has its stories."

My own family's most revered legend about Frank was his heroic rescue of his cousin Don Tavenner from a flaming helicopter on the Williams and Tavenner Ranch in 1969, going back in after he had escaped unharmed. Frank was terribly burned and his looks forever altered. It took a long stay at the Mayo Clinic and a year to heal. Frank never complained.

Look one direction from Frank's grave in the Albee plot, and you see glorious Mount Powell and its ever-shifting weather. The other way looks straight up Cottonwood Creek to his beloved cabin.

Last September, on one of Frank's several, very serious trips to St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, Frank was up and dressed one morning, sitting in the chair in his room. He needed to get home, he told P.J. and me. He had two dozen plants of Early Girl that were just coming ripe up at the cabin - no trifling victory in the high Deer Lodge Valley, where the elevation crowds 5,000 feet - and he needed to water them.

"Dad!" said PJ. "Yesterday you almost died, and today you just have to go home to water your tomatoes!?"

"Yes," said Frank, firmly. "I know what's important."

Reporter Ginny Merriam can be reached at 523-5251 or by e-mail at gmerriam@missoulian.com

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