John Lambert Eliel 1923 – 2019

Wednesday, December 25, 2019
John Lambert Eliel 1923 – 2019

Rancher and pilot John Eliel of Wisdom, Montana, in a last, appreciative reflection typical of his manner, said, “I’ve sailed Newport Bay, danced the cotillion at the Huntington Hotel, and rolled around on a barn floor in the middle of the night with a heifer in birthing distress. That covers a lot of ground — few get such a diverse life.”

Born April 11, 1923 in Pasadena to Elizabeth H. Eliel and inventor and photogrammetric engineer Leon T. Eliel, John shared his auspicious California beginnings with his older brother, Bill, in a pre-Depression world of innocence and orange blossoms, innovation and aviation. His first six years were spent in a home designed and built by his great-uncles Art and Alf Heineman, renowned architects, until the stock market crashed and the family rented it out to move to a smaller place, in a model of optimism and adaptability that shaped John’s character for the nine decades to follow.

His first major adaptation was when World War II called him away from his studies at Stanford University, where he also competed in boxing and played halfback on the football team, to serve in the U.S. Army Air Corp (USAAC) as a flight instructor. He entered with some experience in the air already, having built an ill-fated glider in a barn with friends in high school, soloed at age 16, and flown a Stearman PT-17 before he turned 20. After the service, he went on to work for Fairchild Aerial Surveys out of Pasadena and New York. He maintained his flight-instructor certificate (CFI) well into his nineties and enjoyed fair-weather flying as a UFO (United Flying Octogenarian) pilot in his 1967 Piper Cherokee. In this sense, he was a lifelong aviator, and he loved talking shop with his kids, grandkids, and daughtersin-law — a group comprising eight professional pilots, one air-traffic controller, one flight attendant, and one systems craftsman. In 2012, after seventy-two years of safe flying, he received the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, the most prestigious award the FAA issues to pilots and flight instructors, for professionalism, skill, and aviation expertise exhibited over at least fifty years.

John’s second exercise in adaptability was in his transition from aviation to ranching. The Eliels had some history in Montana through John’s (paternal) great-uncles Lambert, Leonard, and Adolph and Frank Eliel, whose mobile trading post followed the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad tracks as far as the place that would become Dillon; this concession eventually became Eliels Department Store. At age 18, John got it in his head to spend a summer on a Montana ranch, and inquired with Lambert, who was running the store then.

In a story John loved to tell, the first rancher Lambert approached said he didn’t want to deal with a green California kid. But then he asked Fred Hirschy, who replied, “Aw, hell, send him on over.” A fateful decision. When John first saw Fred’s daughter Jill, also age 18 and a natural beauty, she was preoccupied and bundled up in a bulky camel-hair coat. When he met her again the next morning — this time without the coat — “business picked up,” as he put it. This budding relationship would eventuate in a marriage that lasted 65 years until Jill’s passing in 2009.

John had two opportunities to make a career in aviation: his job at Fairchild Aerial Surveys and an offer from Northwest Airlines. But, for love of Jill and the lifestyle, he chose ranching. He became a great steward of the land, taking the long view and keeping his hay meadows smooth and well-irrigated and his herd strong. He was philosophical about loss and hardship, and took great pleasure in nature; his last few years were filled with musings about Blondie and Other One, two foxes with dens and kits nearby, and the hummingbirds that fed outside his office window. He befriended the “chip monks” that grew to expect their morning peanut stash on the front deck, and enjoyed other simple routines: going into town for a mocha and “to bug the girls at the Hook & Horn,” maintaining email communication with friends and family, and keeping the home fires burning. He was a member of the Wisdom Masonic temple for many years, and served on the school board and as Beaverhead County commissioner. In over forty short stories to his kids, he wrote about ranching and flying and the many people who enriched his life. A sense of wonderment and affection informed his routine and his storytelling.

John often reflected on others’ kindnesses. Of these, he spoke often of “the Norman Rockwell-type lady at the candy store in Switzerland” when he was six, who waited so patiently for his selection of penny candy; headmaster Benedict Rich at Midland High School, who helped shape in him a reverence for life; “Marchy” Schwartz, his football coach at Stanford; the ladies at the Officers Club in Stuttgart, Arkansas who watched out for him as they would a younger brother; C. M. Cottrell, cofounder of the American Society of Photogrammetry; Jack Champine, manager of Dillon’s C&C Farm and Ranch Supply; Jared Diamond, friend and writer; brother-in-law Dick Hirschy; Dillon Airport proprietors Trish and Dennis Lonnevik, and Clare and Randy Bailey; his longtime doctor, Michael Caldwell; and helpers Whittney Lapham and Darby Peterson.

John’s life ended tranquilly at home with family present, as he wished, on November 24. A memorial will take place in late summer, after haying. The family reflects his wishes to consider, in lieu of flowers, the Wisdom Volunteer Fire and Ambulance, any Shriners Hospital, or Pasadena’s Midland School (in memory of Ben Rich).

Surviving him, in addition to numerous nieces and nephews, are his eight children — John (Sandi), Lee (Darrell Micken), Laurie (Dave Thompson), Tom (Joan), Leslie (Greg Scott), Lindsey (Stan Wight), Greg (Donna Vroom), and Erik (Maggie) — and their families, comprising exactly fifty grandchildren, including “greats,” “great-greats,” and “the ones in the oven.” His only great-great-granddaughter, Aubree Elizabeth Williams, was welcomed into the world less than 24 hours after his passing, to join the rest in inheriting his legacy of gratitude, kindness, and optimism.

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