Leo Bitz

Leo George Bitz, age 84, passed away peacefully on Monday, January 29, 2018, at the Care Center in Big Sandy, MT. He died of complications from prostate cancer. A service celebrating Leo's life will be held at 2 pm Friday, February 16, in the High School Gym, at 398 1st Avenue, Big Sandy, MT.

On November 10, 1933, in Havre, MT, Leo became the first child born to the union of Mathilda and Henry Bitz of Box Elder. He joined 13 stepbrothers and stepsisters and was followed by 5 more siblings; the Bitz household was bustling with 21 members. Luckily, Leo was always a fellow that enjoyed people!

Often his dad's companion at a very young age (and known to throw a tantrum if left behind), Leo learned about farm-work early in life. Around the age of 8, Leo's elder brothers enlisted for service in World War II, and he started running the Caterpillar tractor. Leo was a natural born mechanic and was always fixing broken equipment and appliances. One of his first triumphs was fixing his mom's 2-cycle gasoline-engine-driven washing machine.

Leo attended elementary school at Lonesome Lake School and high school in Big Sandy. He frequently recounted seeing Evelyn Petr for the first time at 8th grade tests, and she made quite the impression! Leo attended Havre High for a brief period but soon returned to Big Sandy High School. Active in football, intramural basketball, and FFA, Leo graduated in 1951.

During this time, Leo and Evelyn enjoyed their first date - a drive to the Bear Paw Mountains. Their love for each other and their love of traveling together endured through many bumps in the road and 62 years of marriage.

Herding cattle as a boy, Leo loved lying in the tall, blue joint-grass north of their home place. Looking up at the clouds, he imagined all kinds of things and dreamt of flying. He and his dad broke up the 70 acres where he used to watch the clouds in 1950-51, land which Leo would farm for the rest of his life. In 1954, he and his brother Fred bought the family farm and worked it together until the early 70s when they became independent. Leo would say, "Fred was kind of my mentor, good or bad! He was my partner."

Leo was at his core a farmer, and he ran the combine for the last time in 2017.

Following high school, Leo also took a few classes at Northern, learned to fly, and started refereeing. He worked as a spray pilot on the side for about 7 years, but his love for flying and airplanes was lifelong. Leo refereed basketball and football until 1979 when Bart was playing basketball. He had great memories of those times, working to make games fair for the players and traveling with his referring buddies.

Evelyn and Leo were married in 1952, and, upon Evelyn completing her teaching certification, they moved to Big Sandy in 1953. Daughter Julie was born in 1955, Mark followed in 1957, and it was time for a bigger house. Leo always said there wasn't enough money for a house and a well at the farm, so they decided to build a house on the outskirts of Big Sandy. Bart joined the family in 1961.

A caring son and brother, Leo was also a tough, yet fun father. His children were expected to do their best in school, work hard on the farm, and above all keep things super clean. Thankfully, the work was followed by play! The family enjoyed magical holidays, after-harvest vacations waterskiing at the lake with friends Bob and Jean Clark and Gary and Sharon Geyer, and campouts at Keller's, exploring the Northwest, and going to visit relatives. Vacations were always road trips in a series of ever-bigger campers and motor homes.

Leo loved his hunting and fishing trips with his brothers and close friends. These trips with the guys ranged from hunting antelope, gophers, and prairie dogs on the prairie, deer or elk all over Montana, and fishing in Alaska. Evelyn and the kids loved being able to eat TV dinners, be silly at the supper table, and stay up late when he was away!

His community was a source of great pride for Leo, and he undertook many civic endeavors. He volunteered as a fireman and served on the Big Sandy Grain Company and Airport Boards. He was proud to be a Mason and Shriner.

But his favorite thing, however, was helping kids! Leo coached Little League for 13 years from 1960-1973, creating many memories of fun and accomplishment with his teams. Leo took the game seriously and expected the players to try hard, because, "winning is fun!" The boys gave him the nickname Yogi, and it stuck. Leo also mentored many young men who worked for the farm along the way- he loved teaching those young guys, and it showed. One of Leo's favorite projects was helping create a junior high football program in Big Sandy and working with the coaches and community to get uniforms and funding. He was so pleased when the Pioneer Booster Club, players, and coaches presented him with a signed football and special thank you at the Chili Feed game in October 2017.

In 1968, Leo discovered a new toy in Polaris snowmobiles and decided to become a dealer with his brother Russell Bitz. They ran the region's largest Polaris dealership out of the garage for 10 years. In the winter, suppertime was accompanied by the sound and smell of 2-stroke engines. He truly enjoyed snowmobiling, winning area races, wrenching the fastest sled, riding in West Yellowstone with Mark, Bart, and friends.

In 1978, he found a bigger toy to sell and went to work for Big Bud Tractors. When things were slow, he would spend hours calling leads. Soon, he found himself traveling to farms and shows all over Washington, Oregon, and even Australia selling Big Buds, making lifelong friends along the way.

About this time he took on another new role - Grandpa! He was so proud when grandson Christopher Myers was born in 1979 and happy when the Myers family returned to Big Sandy. He and Grandma Evelyn were wonderfully supportive grandparents to Christopher, Aaron and Matthew Myers and Kate and Nate Bitz. They loved having the grandkids around, teaching them, taking them on trips, and showing them Arizona life.

Throughout the years, Leo and Fred had sold hail insurance for Rain and Hail, and when federal crop insurance became an option, Leo opened Leo G. Bitz Crop & Hail Insurance in the old snowmobile shop. Always tremendously grateful to the Big Sandy community for their support of the insurance business, he worked diligently to aid his fellow farmers in their risk management. Leo sold the insurance business to Marlys Edmonds in 2008.

By 1981, the insurance business was doing well and Bart had become a fulltime farmer, so Leo and Evelyn began going south for parts of the winter. Eventually finding a second home in Picacho Peak RV Park near Casa Grande, AZ, they made lifelong friends and memories. They hiked and biked the trails, explored the desert in the Jeep, visited the casinos, enjoyed eating out, and frequented bingo. Some of his favorite memories were going to symphonies, musicals, and the annual Andre Rieu concerts with Evelyn.

Leo and Evelyn always came home to Big Sandy for Christmas and again in the spring to help farm and run the insurance office. They stayed until late fall ensuring they would be in Montana for football and hunting season. They enjoyed watching their grandsons play ball, took many trips to Glacier Park, and frequently traveled to visit friends and family - usually in the newest version of the Bitz family RV. When Leo's brothers became too old to hunt with him, he hunted with "his crew" - his close friends to the end. He enjoyed many fishing trips to Alaska with good friends and family.

As Evelyn's health declined, he made her caretaking his mission. They still traveled to Arizona in the winters when her health allowed, enjoyed the blessings of family, friends, and cared for great-grandson Levon quite regularly.

Evelyn planned a special 80th birthday trip for Leo and all their kids in 2013 to Las Vegas and Hoover Dam, but her health was worsening. Evelyn passed away in 2015 after a lengthy illness, and Leo lost the love of his life. He spent the winter of 2015-16 in Arizona enjoying his good friends and visits from many family and friends.

In recent years, Leo was blessed with three more great-grandchildren: Waylon, Evelyn Louise, and Landon Myers. Those children made ageing a lot more fun for Leo, but their arrival was a measure bittersweet without his wife Evelyn at his side to enjoy them too.

Leo was diagnosed with prostate cancer in early 2016, and, in October 2017, he moved into the Big Sandy Care Center. He found blessings there in the staff's wonderful care, daily visits and prayers from friends and family, and extraordinary community support. Leo's coffee companions and "crew" were loyal friends to the end, and his last birthday and holiday season was a time when he was embraced by family and friends.

Practical, thoughtful, and grateful to the end, Leo was ready to fly away to heaven at his passing!

Leo is survived by his brother Russell Bitz, sisters Irene Holden, Sanda Kinsella, his sons Mark (Jane) and Bart Bitz, daughter Julie Bitz Myers and special friend Mike Baker, grandchildren Christopher (Lisa) Myers, Aaron (Ashley) Myers, Matthew (Julie Ann) Myers, Kate Bitz, Nate Bitz, great-grandchildren Levon, Waylon, Evelyn and Landon Myers, many nieces and nephews including his special niece Amy and family Ray and Conner Sibra. He was preceded in death by his mother and father, his wife Evelyn, brothers Hank, Albert, Reinholt, Daniel, Herbert, and Fred Bitz, Elmer and Walter Klundt; sisters Esther Kane, Alvina Conquergood, Ruth Schwindt, Martha Couch, Ida Phillips, Ora Reichelt, and Virginia Godfrey.

Memorials may be made to the Big Sandy Care Center, the Big Sandy Senior Center, the Methodist Church, and the Big Sandy Football Program and mailed to 54 Jefferson, Big Sandy MT 59520.

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