Montana lost a piece of its history and one of its most beloved characters. William Howard “Bill” Tremper, 94, died on Tuesday, May 7, 2019, at St. Patrick Hospital of natural causes. Most of his six children were able to gather in Missoula and his son, John Tremper, a physician from the Kalispell area, was at his side.
Bill Tremper was a third-generation Montanan. His father, William Greene Tremper, was a civil engineer for the City of Helena and had built many of the bridges and canals in western Montana, including in the Mission Valley, which he loved, and he bought land on Flathead Lake in the early 1920s. But after a failed attempt at ranching, he borrowed $500 from a Missoula priest, which allowed he and his wife Nellie to start a general grocery store in Missoula where they also sold coal and fuel oil and gas near the railroad tracks by Van Buren Street. He quickly prospered in Missoula, and eventually owned many properties and he built the Tremper Shopping Center in 1957, the first shopping center in Montana. Bill, along with his two younger brothers, all worked for the family business.
Bill was born on Sept. 29, 1924, grew up in the rough-and-tumble, early Missoula in a small apartment attached to the store until his mother grew nervous about Bill playing on the railroad tracks and under the cars at the gas station. They moved into a home where the University of Montana Law School is now built, and in 1936 moved to another house, which is now the only house in that district still being used by the University.
The Great Depression defined Bill’s formative years as his family often fed many people in need in exchange for an hour of work in their garden or in his father’s general store. His playground was the Clark Fork River where he often swam, fished and kayaked with his two younger brothers, Bob and Frank, and his cousin, Tom Poole.
Bill attended St. Anthony’s Grade School and Missoula County High School where he lettered in football and track, graduating in 1942. During World War II he served in the Merchant Marines in the Pacific Theater. He often talked fondly of his time spent in the ports of India and other wartime adventures in the Pacific. Upon his return, he studied business and economics at the University of Montana before joining his father’s rapidly expanding business.
Bill was an avid, longtime skier who raced on the University of Montana Ski Team (as did his children Bruce and Laura a generation later). He was the president of several ski clubs and served on the National Ski Patrol for 27 years. He was a member of the Snow Bowl Board of Directors, helped in the development of Big Mountain Ski Area and was often a ski race referee for the Northern Ski Association as he followed his three oldest children around to their many ski races. He was recognized with the Missoulian Cup award for his outstanding contribution to skiing.
Through skiing, he met and married Barbara Jane Dockery from Lewistown, Mont., on Sept. 3, 1949. They raised six children and remained married for 64 years until her death in 2013.
Bill’s community service in Missoula included the Red Cross, teaching swimming and first aid, boating and chairing fundraising drives. He was also a scoutmaster for the Sea Scouts and Cub Scouts. For over 40 years, he belonged to the Missoula Lions Club in Missoula, and was a member of the Rotary Club in Polson after his retirement. He was on the Missoula Chamber of Commerce, and served as the president of the Chamber in 1964.
His long business career began at a young age working for his father in the old East Side Service Co., which initially sold coal and fuel oil, later morphed into Tremper Inc., a Conoco distributorship, which he ran for 50 years with his brothers Bob and Frank. The business passed to his son Hal after the Tremper brothers all retired. The Tremper brothers also owned and managed a number of Tremper properties, including Tremper Shopping Center, which still remains in the Tremper family, and Bill continued to serve as its president until just a few years ago.
After Bill retired, he and his wife Barbara moved to their house on Flathead Lake, built in 1973, on land owned by his father since the 1920s. Bill and his brothers had spent most of their summers growing up on the beloved Flathead Lake property, swimming, sailing, fishing, hiking, hunting and kayaking, as did all of Bill’s six children and their cousins. After Bill and Barbara grew too old to care for the Flathead Lake house, they moved into nearby Polson where they lived for most of their final years.
Despite Bill’s many accomplishments, his main legacy was being loving, gregarious, generous and kind to everyone around him, and even in old age, he was widely recognized around Missoula as he somehow retained his youthful looks. He would seldom leave a room without striking up a conversation with everyone present and genuinely caring about their stories.
Bill savored every moment in life. He would famously admire his birthday candles until they nearly melted into the cake before he would blow them out or watch a sunset until the last light. Bill was the world’s most wonderful father to his six children. He played with his children every day after work and on weekends, taught all of them how to ski, hike, sail, canoe, kayak, hunt, fish and backpack. He taught them responsibility at an early age, allowed them to make their own mistakes, whether it was walking a mile to school each day on their own, sailing on a stormy Flathead Lake or backpacking through the Montana wilderness.
Along with his wife, Barbara, a lawyer and university professor, they made sure all their children were well educated. All have college degrees and four have advanced degrees. Bill’s greatest pride was his children including: Laura N. Wagner, teacher in Nashua, Mont., now retired; Jane L. East, a social case worker in Missoula; W. Bruce Tremper, Director of the Utah Avalanche Center, now retired; Hal G. Tremper, managing owner of Tremper Distributing, Inc.; John H. Tremper, a family practice medical doctor in the greater Kalispell area; and Glenn E. Tremper, an attorney in Great Falls, Mont. Bill also treasured and relied on his children’s spouses: Roger Wagner, Mike East, Susi Hauser, Karen Tremper and Peggy O’Leary. Bill has 13 grandchildren, and 12 great-grandchildren.
Funeral services will be at St. Anthony’s Church at 10:30 a.m. Friday, May 17 with a Vigil Thursday, May 16 at 7 p.m. His ashes will be interred with his pre-deceased wife Barbara at Lakeview Cemetery in Polson at 11 a.m. Saturday, May 18 with a reception following at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church.
Charitable donations can be made in his name to the Flathead Lakers or Lions Club Montana Sight and Hearing Foundation.