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BILLINGS – Esther "Es" Wilson passed away from natural causes on Friday, March 12, 2010, at Liggett Cottage on St. John’s Lutheran Ministries campus in Billings.

Es was born to John and Alice Cunniff in Great Falls. She and her brother Gordon were raised within an extended family in Augusta.

Es was an outstanding high school basketball player. Prior to the last tournament of the year at the end of her sophomore year in 1933, the Augusta News wrote that Es had “scored more points alone than the total of all the teams which Augusta has played against.” And in her senior year, in the final tournament of the year won by Augusta, the newspaper noted that Es “was presented with a Dead Eye medal for scoring the most points, 106 points in three games.”

Es graduated from the University of Montana in 1939, where she was proud to have been a member of the Delta Gamma Sorority. In 1937, she was among the first six women allowed to join the new “Grizzly Band.” Prior to 1937, the university had a ROTC band that did not allow women to participate.

Following her graduation, Es worked briefly as a high school teacher and at a Kaiser shipyard in Portland, Ore. She returned to Montana to marry her college boyfriend, Vincent “Vince” Wilson, in April 1943 in Great Falls. She and Vince moved to New York City where Vince obtained a graduate degree from New York University and Es worked for a large corporation. While in New York, Es celebrated V-E Day in Times Square. In 1945, the Wilsons returned to Missoula where Vince resumed his 39 year teaching career at the University of Montana. Throughout this time Es provided him a great deal of support living with the ups and downs associated with being a professor in the Montana University System. Vince first established a pre-physical therapy program and then was instrumental in developing the fully accredited physical therapy program at UM. He retired in 1981, as the first director of the program in the same year the first professional physical therapy class graduated. The physical therapy facility is named in his honor. Vince passed away in 1995.

Es and Vince’s only child, Craig, was born in Missoula. Es enjoyed being a wife and mother during a time when her husband and son could often come home during the week for hot lunches. She was a willing volunteer in the significant number of activities Craig and Vince were involved in. She also served as a volunteer for various church and charitable organizations. Es was an avid home decorator, flower gardener and skilled practitioner of home cooking. She was an extremely social person who enjoyed her large circle of friends. Es greatly enjoyed attending Grizzly football and basketball games over a 70 year period. Her avocation was shopping for clothes on a limited budget. In the final years Es lived in Missoula, she enjoyed the companionship of the late Warren Harris.

Es was extremely proud of her extensive pioneer Montana heritage. Her maternal great-grandparents, Sylvanus and Charlotte White, traveled to Montana by covered wagon with their large family in 1882 from Minnesota following Sylvanus’ service in the Union Army during the Civil War. They first settled at Sun River, but later homesteaded near Augusta where the Elk Creek Ranger Station is located. Es’ maternal grandfather, John Nixon, a native of Great Britain immigrated to Canada following his service in the British military. In 1874, John was among the first 400 members to join the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In this same year a contingent of “Mounties,” including Grandfather Nixon, traveled by horseback from Manitoba to build Fort McLeod in Alberta (then part of the Northwest Territories). In 1875, John “left the service a little early” and traveled to Sun River where he opened a livery stable. He became a lieutenant in the Sun River Rangers, a semi-vigilante organization founded to protect members’ cattle from rustlers, which was a forerunner of Montana’s modern cattlemen’s associations. In 1883, John married Olive White and in 1888 they purchased a ranch on Smith Creek near Augusta. This ranch, now the Weisner Ranch, is still owned and operated by relatives. Es’ paternal grandfather, Martin Cunniff, was an Irish immigrant who helped build the railroad into Montana. He married fellow Irish immigrant Nora Lavelle and in 1888, the Cunniff’s established a homestead on the North Fork of the Dearborn River near Augusta. Four geographic features in this area are named after the Cunniff family (all misspelled Cunnif).

Es was preceded in death by her parents, husband Vince and brother Gordon.

She is survived by her son Craig, daughter-in-law Kristianne and deeply loved grandsons, Collin and Evan Montana (Shepherd). Other survivors include her sister-in-law, Helen Cunniff and special nephews Greg and Jeff Cunniff and families of Great Falls; as well as sister-in-law Audiene Coyne and family of Stockton, Calif.

Memorial services will be held at 3 p.m. Thursday, March 18, at the Kathy Lillis Chapel on the St. John’s Campus, followed by companion services at the Holy Spirit Episcopal Church in Missoula at 1 p.m. Friday, March 19 and at the Augusta Community Church at 2 p.m. Saturday, March 20. A private interment will be held at the Augusta cemetery.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests that donations be made to the Grizzly Marching Band, or the charity of one’s choice. Band contributions can be made payable to the University of Montana Foundation/Marching Band Support Fund and mailed to the UM Foundation, P.O. Box 7159, Missoula, MT 59807-7159.

the life of: Esther Cunniff Wilson
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