Erwin Byrnes was on an epic Montana road trip with his wife Ethel.
This was five years ago, but it might as well have been last month.
“The Seventeen Hundred Eleven Mile Trip,” Byrnes boomed unbidden on March 6, taking an interview by the horns as he did most everything in his 85-plus years.
“We go to White Sulphur and take the castle in, have lunch in White Sulphur and go over to Roundup,” he began. “I’m headed to Ingomar – the Jersey Lilly.”
For the next 15 minutes, it was that lush June week in 2009 and Byrnes was in the present tense, back behind the wheel. His hopes for navy bean soup at the celebrated Lilly were dashed, he said. “Damn thing’s closed.”
But there was a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich with chips at the Wagon Wheel in Ekalaka the next day.
“Get the bill. Two dollars and 50 cents apiece. I say to Ethel, ‘How the hell do these people make any money? This is phenomenal.’ ”
Those who knew Erwin Byrnes – as the longtime teacher and vice principal at Sentinel High School, as the even longer time hall of fame basketball and football official – can hear his voice as they read this.
“T-shirts, T-shirts, T-shirts,” it used to echo across Dornblaser Stadium on South Higgins each May from the 1960s into the ’80s, when Byrnes was the inimitable announcer at state high-school track meets.
Maybe it shook a bit, but not much, as he relived his road trip two weeks ago. Ethel sat in a chair nearby in their sunny front room overlooking the lower Rattlesnake Valley. She supplied details, but Erwin’s memory was crystal clear.
He sported a beard for the first time in his life – “I don’t get a thrill out of shaving any more,” he said – and was slightly stooped when he rose to greet a visitor.
The condo on Peggio Lane is the fifth Rattlesnake home the Byrneses have lived in since 1959, as and after they raised six children.
It was where Erwin helped celebrate his grandson’s 31st birthday last week, a week early.
And it was where he died on St. Patrick’s Day morning. At 10:45 Byrnes slipped, drug-induced, into an otherworld free from Parkinson’s disease and the cumbersome offshoots that robbed him of the control that defined his life.
“There were five of us six kids here. Mom. The minister. A couple of hospice people and some others,” Tom Byrnes said haltingly over the phone later that morning. “It was good. It was peaceful.”
His dad, he said, was talking about the NCAA basketball tournament at the end.
There hasn’t been a time since shortly after Byrnes moved his young family to Missoula in the late 1950s that he and Ethel didn’t belong to the Century Club, now the Grizzly Scholarship Association. They’ve “always” been season ticket holders for Lady Griz basketball and Grizzly football and basketball.
They’ve been “a zillion places” with the Lady Griz, Ethel said – from Hawaii and Cancun to Providence, R.I., and Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Byrnes was raised in Glendive, the son of a railroad man, and the Seventeen Hundred Eleven Mile trip included a stop there “to check the old neighborhood out,” he said.
Then it was on to Sidney for the night, and the next morning to Plentywood and Medicine Lake.
“Where we’re going is to Westby,” he said. “I want to go to the furthermost town in Montana. I want to see where Allan grew up.”
He assumed the visitor knew he meant Allan Nielsen, the Grizzly basketball star of the mid-’70s who died in a bridge construction accident near St. Regis the summer after his senior season.
“So we do that and then we have to go over and check out Redstone, where Janie (Selvig) is from, and Outlook.”
Outlook was the stomping grounds for the Selvig boys, including Janie’s husband Robin, coach of the Lady Griz for the past 35 years.
“We check out the high school there,” Byrnes said.
On the way back west, after a stay in Malta and “a real neat breakfast at the hotel there,” Erwin and Ethel found themselves in Lewistown where they ran across Jim Zellick.
“George’s son,” Byrnes said, referring to his one-time boss, the superintendent of Missoula County High Schools in the 1970s and early ’80s. The younger Zellick was a standout football lineman for Sentinel High and played for the Grizzlies in the 1970s. He ran a drive-in and a Mexican food restaurant in Lewistown, Byrnes said.
“I have a neat visit with him and then we take off and we’re headed to Denton and go to the bank and see the Edwardses – Katie’s parents.”
From 2002-2006 Katie Edwards was one of the top Lady Griz scorers of all time.
“So I walk in and Lorinda’s working behind the cage with another gal and she’s kind of stunned,” Byrnes said. “She says, ‘Erwin, what are you doing here?’
“I say, ‘Well, I had to stop in and say hi.’ Wayne’s in the back, so I get Ethel and we go in and visit with him for a while. Then we’re off to Fort Benton.”
When it was over, the Seventeen Hundred Eleven Mile Trip had lasted five days.
“It seems like a ton of driving, but it wasn’t that much,” Byrnes said. “We stopped and did this and that. We have such a huge state, when you tell people you put 1,711 miles on a trip, they think a guy’s crazy to do something like that. That was just the funnest five days we had.”
Byrnes was a few months shy of his 81st birthday that June. The Parkinson’s, a degenerative nerve disorder for which there is no cure, hadn’t raised its insidious head.
He retired from the Missoula school district in 1981 and quit refereeing in 1993 after 38 years in the high school ranks. He was named to the Montana Officials Association Hall of Fame in 1995, and faced the first of three bouts with lymphoma a year or two later.
As he aged, Byrnes suffered through the painful effects of scoliosis of the spine. Between trips to doctors, it became clear that he had acquired something akin to Parkinson’s. Eventually the diagnosis was confirmed.
Things started downhill last November, he said, after his throat forgot how to swallow.
“I never really thought I had swallowing problems. Lo and behold, they told me that too many food particles were going down in my lungs and I was aspirating,” he said.
He contracted pneumonia, and when Byrnes left the hospital just before Thanksgiving after a stay of three weeks, it was with a feeding tube – something he initially refused.
Ethel and caretakers fed him and administered all his medications through the tube. The couple made it to just three basketball games this season, a spirit-crusher for both of them.
And so Erwin set about planning his death.
“I’m not going to be around in another 10 days,” he told a stunned interviewer that afternoon two weeks ago. “I’m planning a celebration of my life and I’m not going to be there. It’s going to be on Saturday, March 22, at the DoubleTree Inn.”
“That’s maybe a shock to you,” he went on. “But I just cannot live this way. It’s not very much fun and certainly it’s a burden on Ethel, and I don’t want to have it continue.”
The life he was living was “a dead-end thing,” Byrnes said the following week. “I went back in our files today to look at our wills and it says in black and white, we said 20 years ago what we wanted to do. It was no rash decision we made in a week’s time or a day’s time.”
Byrnes asked Gene Leonard, his friend and former Sentinel and UM football coach, to be the master of ceremonies for Saturday’s celebration. He’s lined up other old friends like Bob Sheridan and Bob Hendricks to say something.
He nixed the avocadoes his daughter had ordered for the celebration. There’ll be lots of shrimp instead, because “shrimp is always popular,” Byrnes said, and cold beer and wine and pop.
“The DoubleTree has been very generous. They’re setting up tables and chairs for 250 people. We wanted to get as many people off their feet as we could.”
The wife and grown children had come to grips with his death, Byrnes assured.
“Some families can’t talk about this kind of thing, you know what I’m saying? They can’t talk to their children about death. Well, our kids … we try to be open with them and tell them exactly what we want, how we want it taken care of, so there’s no argument.”
Never was there a sign of wavering in the final days or hours or minutes.
“It took a lot of nerve on his part,” Tom Byrnes said. “He was like, it’s 10 o’clock, let’s go.”
“We just know this is the way we want to get treated,” Erwin said a few days before. “People may not agree with us, but that’s our choice, not anyone else’s choice.
“We have to be kind of the driver of our own bus.”
Saturday’s celebration at the DoubleTree begins at 1:30 p.m. and lasts until 4:30. Erwin and his family invite all his friends to join in.
Dress casual. Mr. Byrnes said.