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Lillian Ruth Lehnert

Monday, March 15, 2021
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Lillian Ruth (Miller) Lehnert, formerly of Park City, Montana and Del Rio Texas, died Monday, March 8, 2021 at her home in Billings, Montana after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. She was 86.

Born Sept. 23, 1934 at Ft. Monroe, Virginia to Howard Milton “Tommy” Miller and Jennie Viola Eastep she was the oldest of two daughters. As part of a military family, she was on the move from the beginning, a trait carried throughout her life.

Her early years in Virginia made an indelible mark on her life. Her anticipation for the birth of her baby sister, Marilyn Sue, brought her to grief when she raised the window shade, a signal to the neighbor that help was needed, on more than one occasion. Asked by her exasperated mother why she continued to do this she replied, “I just wanted to see how fast Aunt Billie could get here.” When World War II called her father away, Ruth, her mother and sister moved to Abingdon, Virginia., joining the rest of the extended family.  While the war caused stress and trial in the adult world, Ruth reveled in life surrounded by her sister, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles. At night, while her mother worked in the munitions factory in Bristol, Tennessee, the cousins would be bundled in bed scaring each other with ghost stories. After school they played in the gardens and orchards or walked to town with their grandfather. The end of WWII brought Ruth’s father home, and a move with the Air Force to Arizona.

Despite having to change schools frequently because of her father’s military career, Ruth was a dedicated student. She attended elementary schools in Massachusetts, Virginia, and Arizona, changing schools four times in one year. The family settled in Mesa, Arizona where Ruth finished elementary school and attended middle school and Mesa High School. She sang in the choir, was an honor student, tutor, and member of the Mesa High School drill team, the Rabbettes. She graduated in 1952. Outside of school she pursued music, taking voice and piano lesson and was a member of the International Order of the Rainbow for Girls.

Ruth attended Northern Arizona University (NAU) in Flagstaff, Arizona where she majored in education and minored in music. There she sang in the Shrine of the Ages Choir, a highlight of her life. The choir toured and performed throughout the region, including performing for Easter from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. While at NAU Ruth met Emery “Smokey” Lehnert, who became her lifelong partner and best friend. They were married May 19, 1956 in Flagstaff, Arizona. Ruth graduated from NAU the following weekend. After graduation the newlyweds left for Capitol Reef National Park in south-central Utah for Smokey’s summer seasonal National Park Service posting. At the end of the summer Ruth took her first teaching assignment in the mining town of Bagdad, Arizona. Smokey returned to NAU to complete his degree in Biology, graduating in 1957.

Their life was full of adventure and travel. Their first big adventure was the birth of their son, William Kolb. He was joined by a sister, Jennifer Susan 21 months later. The family lived in all of the Southwestern United States at a variety of national parks and monuments. While Smokey worked for the National Park Service, Ruth cared for her family, taught in the community and park schools, volunteered as pianist for church and school and was active in a variety of civic and church organizations. Together with Smokey she volunteered with New Mexico Search and Rescue, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, New Mexico and Texas Hunter Education programs, Explorer Scouts and the Methodist Youth Fellowship. She fostered an appreciation for music and the arts in her children, taking them to the theater, ballet, museums and cultural events whenever and wherever possible. This was balanced by the crisp Autumn days spent hunting and the long Summers spent camping and fishing with her family. Although she preferred to read a book or do hand crafts while the rest of the family fished, she was skilled at a variety of fishing knots. Her children took full advantage of her skill, as Ruth could be counted on to put down her book and tie a new hook to a recently emptied line. Once, after watching Ruth quickly tie a hook to their daughter’s line, Smokey nearly choked as the youngster turned and said enthusiastically, “Mom’s the best hooker in Texas!”  

Her time in Del Rio, Texas was some of her happiest. There she taught for over 30 years, mostly in elementary education. While working for the school district she was honored twice as an outstanding teacher in Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers. She was dedicated to her students and enjoyed providing tickets to local musical and theater productions as incentive prizes. She and Smokey traveled as chaperones with several Del Rio High School honors classes on their trips to England, Ireland, France and Scotland. She was particularly proud of the work she did for Southwest Texas Junior College as an English as a Second Language teacher after she retired from elementary education. Outside of education she worked with the Texas Historical Society, bowling league, and Toastmasters. She loved having her whole family involved in the community theater with her. She enjoyed doing makeup, costumes and bit parts with the Upstagers, Del Rio’s community theater group. Of particular joy was singing with her family in the United Methodist Church choir and the Del Rio Community Choir, especially during the 1976 Bicentennial celebration. Each Christmas she delighted in dressing as Mrs. Claus and going with Smokey as Santa Claus to visit classrooms and families in Del Rio, and being part of the Christmas Boat Float on Lake Amistad. During the summers, when not visiting their children and grandchildren, the couple spent time at a variety of craft fairs where Ruth would sell hand crafts and Smokey sold artwork.

She and Smokey moved to Park City in August 2011. They were excited to be back in a state with four distinct seasons and spent hours exploring Montana. They particularly enjoyed visiting Red Lodge whenever they could and sitting on the dock at Wild Bill Lake or at Cooney Reservoir. They enjoyed their first winter together here, relearning how to cope with snow and ice and reveling in the beauty of the season. By Spring they had a mile long list of places to visit and creeks to fish. When Smokey died suddenly in June 2012 Ruth was bereft and never recovered from the loss of her lifelong partner. She moved to an independent living apartment at Morningstar Senior Living in Billings, MT in 2017 with her beloved 21-year-old kitty, La’T. Ruth was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease shortly after her move. Once her favorite pet died, Ruth moved to assisted living and later to the Reflections Unit of Morningstar, where she died in the early morning hours March 8, 2021 surrounded by her family.  

Ruth was preceded in death by her husband of 56 years, Emery Carl “Smokey” Lehnert, her son-in-law Randolph Clark Feldhaus, her son-in-law Gary Lee Draper, and her parents. She is survived by her son, William Kolb (Caridad) of Katy, TX, daughter, Jennifer Draper of Park City, Montana, her sister, Marilyn Sue Miller (Norman) Pearce of Mesa, Arizona, four granddaughters, a grandson, two nieces and a nephew. She was looking forward to the birth of her first great grandchild this summer.

Due to an abundance of caution during the pandemic no service is planned in Montana. Instead, a memorial slide show will be posted on line in the near future. A memorial service and inurnment will be in September at Pioneer Cemetery in Grand Canyon, Arizona. In lieu of flowers, please make donations to the Cline Library Special Collections at Northern Arizona University at nau.edu/special-collections/giving, or the Grand Canyon Conservancy at www.grandcanyon.org and follow the links.

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