Wednesday, June 19, 2024

JoEllen Stimac Estenson, 84

| May 17, 2024 12:00 AM

JoEllen Stimac Estenson, 84, passed peacefully on May 2, 2024, following a very brief and hard-fought battle with a third bout of cancer, which accentuated her otherworldly levels of grit, determination, and positivity. Her incredible attitude had helped her prevail against cancer twice in the past and we all expected a three-peat (just like her beloved Phil Jackson’s Chicago Bulls did a few times), but the good Lord graciously had other plans.

JoEllen was born in Chicago, Illinois, on Nov. 10, 1939, to Eugene Wyatt and Evelyn Birdsong, but very quickly adjusted to an amazing new life when Evelyn married Steve Stimac, the following year. The two of them created a beautiful and loving home in Kansas City, Kansas, which included four younger siblings; brothers, Jim, Larry, and John; and sister, Veronica. Following graduation from high school in 1957, she considered several different academic pursuits but ultimately found that her commitment to faith, service and the Catholic church needed to be formalized and pursued, which led to her joining the Sisters of Charity Convent (SCL) in Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1960. It was through this experience, over the next 11 years, that JoEllen found her true calling and began to teach, shaping the lives of students from Colorado to California to Montana.

On New Year’s Eve, 1972, JoEllen married Pat Estenson, a native “Montanan,” marking the beginning of a meaningful and memorable 51-year-marriage, highlighted by devotion to faith, family, and love for one another. In November of 1973, JoEllen gave birth to their son, Erik. Not long after, she made a successful run for the Montana State Legislature and was elected in 1976, serving one term. In 1980, Pat was hired as Superintendent of the Montana State Veterans Home in Columbia Falls, a move that resulted in JoEllen’s longest tenured position as an English teacher, first at the junior high and then the high school. Here she became one of the most beloved teachers on staff, by students and faculty alike. In 1990, compelled to do even more to serve the students of Columbia Falls, Hungry Horse, Martin City and Coram, she created the EAGLE School, serving as Principal at the alternative High School for those needing a second chance and a fresh start. JoEllen reconnected with her Catholic education roots when, in 1998, she was hired as the Principal at Billings Central Catholic High School. Finally, in 2000, she was hired as Principal of Butte Central Catholic High School, from where she “officially” retired in 2003. JoEllen was anything less than retired in the years that followed, as she was an education consultant and mentor in the Polson School District, was active on the Montana Board of Education, and spent countless hours supporting her sisters in the Philanthropic Education Organization of Montana.

JoEllen was incredibly proud of her family and loved anything and everything her Grands were up to. She attended their games, concerts, holidays, baptisms, confirmations, all kinds of special events, and was always the most positive and enthusiastic supporter in the gym, auditorium, church or classroom. She loved a verdant landscape, a meal that was “to kill for,” dressing to the nines, and anything that generated a good laugh, which she was well known for. She loved sports, basketball in particular, most recently winning the Estenson family 2024 NCAA Men’s Basketball pool. She was always looking for a good bridge game and found the best one with her gang in Polson. JoEllen valued the political process and remained active in writing letters to Congressional leaders, locally and nationally, in support of causes she was passionate about. She appreciated the arts, attending numerous chorales and symphonies, and was a fine piano player and singer, having been the music director at St. Richard's Catholic Church in Columbia Falls. She was an avid reader and thinker who loved the written word and a great story, which helped shape a unique world perspective. Appreciation for other countries and cultures was further manifest in the love she had for her International Sons and their families; Guido Dellagano (Brazil), Geoff Cribb (Australia), Mahesh Kandambi (Sri Lanka), Jan Sindre Egseth (Norway), Andrea Carena (Italy), and Ivan Escobar (Chile).

She was preceded in death by her parents, Steve and Evelyn Stimac; and her brothers, Jim and John Stimac. 

She is survived by her husband, M. Patrick (Pat) Estenson; her son, Erik Estenson; her daughter-in-law, Christina (Chris) Estenson; and her beloved "grands," Teagan, Keller, and Ainsley Estenson, who were her greatest source of love, devotion, and pride. She is also survived by her brother, Larry (JoAnne) Stimac; sister, Veronica (Phil) Warson; sister-in-law, Madge (Greg) Allen; her treasured nieces and nephews on the Estenson and Stimac side, her church family, her education community and her beloved friends and neighbors. JoEllen, Yo-Yo Ma, Gram will always be remembered for her grace, grit, and positivity; which live on in those she loved and loved her, in return.

A funeral mass for JoEllen will be celebrated at 11 a.m. on June 28, at Saint John Paull II Catholic Church, in Bigfork. In the lieu of flowers, the family recommends a charitable donation to the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth at