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Clay Benkelman, 73

| February 25, 2024 12:00 AM

Dr. Clay E. Benkelman, 73, passed away Jan. 23, 2024, at St. Patrick’s Hospital in Missoula. He was a beloved husband, father, brother, grandfather, and eye doctor to many.

He was born Oct. 28, 1950, in Honolulu, Hawaii, to Ward and Mary Benkelman. Clay was an avid outdoorsman, hunting and fishing with his family, friends, and grandkids.

Clay graduated from Polson High School in 1969, as class valedictorian, student council president and co-captain of the football team. Following pre-med school at Montana State University as well as the University of Montana, Clay went on to study Optometry at Pacific University in Forest Grove Oregon.

In 1974, he enlisted in the Navy. He served as a lieutenant in the Medical Service Corps. Discharged in 1978, Clay felt honored to serve his country.

Clay practiced optometry in Bigfork, from 1978 through 2016 at Bigfork Eye Clinic. Dr. Benkelman also was an optometrist over the years in Kalispell at Glacier Eye Clinic and then at Ronan Eye Clinic until he retired in 2023. 

Clay and Debra Smith were married in 1981 at Bethany Lutheran Church in Bigfork. Together, Debra and Clay had three wonderful children, Merisa, Brandon, and Brent. They enjoyed lake days in Bigfork and Polson, camping, fishing, hunting, skiing, and many other family trips together.

Clay and Joella Hamilton-Benkelman were married Jan. 17, 2008, at Shipwreck Beach in Poipu, Kauai. Clay and Joella were passionate about camping and fishing with their friends and family. They loved watching their grandchildren flourish and grow, and taking them fishing as well as many other outdoor adventures.

Clay was preceded in death by his father, Dr. Ward E. Benkelman; and mother, Mary L. Benkelman. 

He is survived by his wife, Joella Hamilton-Benkelman; daughter, Merisa (Pat) Murray; sons, Brandon Benkelman, and Brent (Valarie) Benkelman; stepson, Russell (Afton Russell) Beeland; former spouse, Debra Smith-Sward; grandchildren, Tanyon and Torren Murray, Dacia and Blake Benkelman, Kaven and Kamden Benkelman, KC, Tristan, Connor, and Elliott Russell; He is also survived by his brothers, Guy Benkelman, Barney (Peggy) Benkelman, Cody (Cynthia) Benkelman, along with numerous cousins, nieces, nephews, a few released fish, and a couple smaller bucks.

We will no longer see Clay, but we will forever remember his hunting and fishing stories and love of talking about his family to anyone who would listen.

A celebration of Clay’s life will be held at 1 p.m. on Saturday, April 13, at the Polson High School auditorium. The family wants to thank Columbia Mortuary in Columbia Falls for their care and help. Please send a donation to your local Lions Club in lieu of flowers.