MISSOULA — Meyer “Mike” Chessin, 97, passed away peacefully on Nov. 2, 2018, at Providence St Patrick Hospital in Missoula, surrounded by family who helped his passing with Yiddish songs of his childhood. Meyer was born Feb. 5, 1921, in Brooklyn, New York, to Zalman and Celia (Heller) Chessin. Life passions and interests included politics, science, sports, music, language and family.
He lived his first three years within eyeshot of the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn. The Bronx became home, where Mike’s parents owned a small grocery store. A richly diverse neighborhood of Jewish, Italian, Polish and Irish families formed an ethnic tapestry that helped shape Mike’s worldview.
Yiddish was his mother tongue and he learned English upon entering grammar school. He advanced rapidly through school, graduating high school at the age of 16. His father’s health prompted the family to move to southern California, where Mike enjoyed new opportunities.
He attended UCLA and graduated UC Berkeley in 1941, with a major in plant science. Before entering the Army in 1943, he worked on a ranch in Fallbrook, California, and at naval shipyards in Richmond, California. After basic training, he was sent to Ohio State to study chemical and electrical engineering. There, he met his future wife, Florence Wolman. In January 1945 they married during Mike’s training in radio communications in Neosho, Missouri, a marriage that spanned 73 wonderful years.
His first army tour was in Berlin, Germany. The physical and social destruction he saw in Europe set him on a life quest to oppose war as an option in resolving conflict. He finished his service dismantling communication stations in the South Pacific.
The GI bill supported Mike’s Ph.D. program in plant pathology beginning in 1946. Mike and Flo made lifelong friends during those years and enjoyed the intellectual and cultural environment tremendously. Before finishing his dissertation in 1949, the University of Montana offered a faculty position in the Botany Department, a position he relished. Teaching and basic research were core to his academic life and he involved himself in many facets of university life. He served on the Faculty Senate and International Student Council among many other activities. Lasting connections with students and colleagues made his 41-year tenure as professor and 28 emeritus years a rich and rewarding life.
Research and cultural interests took Mike, and often the family, on adventures here and abroad through fellowships, sabbaticals, and international exchanges. Among those places were England, Costa Rica, Minnesota, Romania, Bulgaria, Russia and India. From India came a string of graduate students beginning in the late 1950s. Mike’s research and publications on plant viruses, particularly cactus, radiation biology, and plant interferon-like responses were important in the field of plant pathology.
Public education on science and issues of health, environment, and war were lifetime commitments, as well. He traveled around Montana with fellow professors to engage citizens on the hazards of radiation from nuclear weapons. Such efforts around the nation were instrumental in bringing about the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
In “retirement” Mike penned a collection of poems about interesting friends and historical figures, called Yippee Yi Yiddish. Travels in Eastern Europe were captured in his Passing in Constanța. Regular columns and letters to the editor stimulated Missoulian readers. “Meyerke” shared his love of Yiddish, a wide-ranging experience of language, song, history and culture. He enjoyed the camaraderie of the Mendelsonn Club for a number of years.
Noted for biking, even at 94, Mike ventured to well-loved spots around Missoula, such as the farmers markets, Grizzly games, Bonner Park band concerts, and most any public cultural event. Hiking, fishing, camping and exploring all were vital to the Montana and western experiences he loved, and led to a life well-lived.
Mike was an outstanding father and friend. He relished the lives and accomplishments of his wife, children and grandchildren. A weekly gathering of retirees for Mo Club burgers and pool was a ritual. Flo and Mike were avid dancers and passed on international folk dancing to family and community.
Meyer was preceded in death by his two sisters, Sarah Borden and Charlotte Brent, and his daughter Esther. Surviving Mike are his wife, Florence, his children, Bert (Carol), Sonia, Meta, and Saul (Valerie,) and 10 grandchildren, Ethan, Samuel, Mati, Jacob, Dustin, Celia, Laina, Hannah, Josh and Isabella, and two great-grandsons, Frank and Ira.
Funeral services are at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 7 at Garden City Funeral Home, followed by a graveside service at the Missoula City Cemetery. A celebration of life is being planned for mid 2019. Donations may be made to organizations of your choice dedicated to social justice, environment, and peace.