MISSOULA — Ralph Alex Klawitter was born in Chicago, Illinois, in July of 1927 to Veronica Irene Kowalczyk Klawitter and Alex John Klawitter. He attended grammar and high schools in Chicago and enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War II. After leaving the Navy, Ralph worked in the steel mills in South Chicago. He was promoted to conductor on the railroad in Republic Steel. A dentist in South Chicago befriended Ralph at the behest of Ralph's coworkers and helped him enroll in forestry school at Michigan State on the G.I. Bill in the fall of 1947. Ralph played freshman football until the pressure of forestry laboratories forced him to devote full time to his studies.
In the fall of 1951, Ralph met Lillian June McVannel at a resident counselors meeting. They became engaged in February 1952 when he serenaded her at her dormitory along with his Theta Chi Fraternity brothers. They married April 19, 1952, in St. Matthew's Catholic Church and followed it with a reception at the Theta Chi Fraternity House.
Ralph graduated cum laude with a forestry degree in December 1952. Lillian graduated the following March 1953 cum laude with a degree in home economics.
In May 1953, Ralph reported to the forest supervisors office of the Klamath National Forest in Yreka, California, as a junior forester. They were in Yreka only a short time before they were moved into a tent and trailer nine miles up Indian Creek from the town of Happy Camp where the ranger's office was located. Ralph's man work was preparing timber sales and scaling timber, along with fighting fires on the Klamath N.F. and in southern California during the winter. One highlight was a trip to the Rose Bowl Parade and football game in January 1954 to see Michigan State win.
In February 1955 Ralph was transferred to Charleston, South Carolina, as a research forester with the Southeastern Forest Experiment Station. He researched prescribed burning and hardwood and pine management practices on the Santee Experimental Forest, Francis Marion National Forest. The fall of 1955, Ralph and family (wife and two daughters) went to Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, to earn a master's degree in forestry. He returned to Charleston, South Carolina, in June 1956 to continue his research work. In the fall of 1960 Ralph and family (wife and four children) returned to Durham, North Carolina, where Ralph graduated from Duke University in 1962 with a doctorate.
Still headquartered in Charleston, his research expanded to cover the Southeast from Florida to Virginia. He also served as Chairman of the Appalachian Section of the Society of American Foresters.
While off duty Ralph turned to water activities. He earned a SCUBA diving certificate which he upgraded over many years to a Master SCUBA Diver rating with PADI diving organization. He also joined the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, eventually becoming a senior lieutenant with a ships captains License enabling him to carry passengers for hire offshore on his small cruiser.
In 1969 Ralph transferred to the Northeastern Forest Experiment Station as assistant director of research. He then was transferred to the Intermountain Forest Experiment Station as assistant director in 1972. His responsibilities included research laboratories at Montana State University, University of Idaho, University of Montana and the Missoula Fire Laboratory. Ralph retired from the U.S. Forest Service in Missoula in 1980.
Ralph volunteered with the University of Montana Outdoor Program for six years after retirement. He helped guide student summer day hikes and backpack trips; he was a guide on river raft floats; he helped supervise rock climbing training sessions. In the winter, there were ice climbing sessions, cross-country skiing and winter camping. When his visual acuity waned, he left the Outdoor Program for safety reasons, but he continued those adventures on his own and with his family, as well as hunting and fishing.
For 20 years Ralph served with the Montana Civil Air Patrol, U.S. Air Force Auxiliary as a pilot and flight instructor. He flew numerous search and rescue, training and cross-country flights in a variety of small aircraft. He retired as a Lt. Colonel and Command Pilot, twice receiving the Pilot of the Year Award.
Ralph particularly enjoyed telling of his mountain climbing the fourteeners (35 in Colorado, Mt. Whitney in California and Mt. Rainier in Washington) and the 20,300 foot Mt. McKinley in Alaska with his oldest son, Mike. In addition, he climbed Idaho's Mt. Borah, Montana's Granite Peak and Wyoming's Grand Teton Peak.
Lillian and Ralph have been married 67 years. Their four children include: Victoria Remaily in Delaware, Laura Moire' in Hawaii, Mike Klawitter in Alaska, and Mark Klawitter in Livingston. They also have 12 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
A Funeral Mass will be held at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church on Thursday, May 23, 2019, at 10:30 a.m. with a reception to follow in Reidy Hall at the church. Graveside services with military honors will follow at 1:30 p.m. at the Western Montana Veteran's Cemetery. Condolences for the family may be left at cremationburialsocietyoftherockies.com.