by Linda Winnie and Ellen Sullivan
June Ash passed away peacefully on November 10 with the comfort of family present. She was a central figure in the history of Flathead Audubon, and a friend to many of us.
June was 21 when she first came to Montana in 1952. She came to Libby with her new husband Rod to work the summer as firewatchers at the Big Swede Lookout. June had recently graduated from UC Berkeley in Social Welfare; Rod was finishing his Masters in Anthropology. Driving down the Mission Valley on their way back to California, they spotted a dirt road going east across the mountains to a long valley that looked sparsely populated. “We made a note of that” June has said. They would come back to Montana 10 years later to explore the Swan Valley.
After Rod graduated they moved to northern California where Rod taught high school social studies and June volunteered for local community programs such as youth baseball, Campfire Girls, and community concerts. In later years she worked as a substitute coordinator for local high schools. At home they raised chickens, pigeons, and 4 kids, Gordon, David, Ellen, and James. She became the Conservation Chair for Cottonwood Garden Club, and was instrumental in developing a town park, receiving several conservation awards. June was “a volunteer extraordinaire” says her daughter Ellen.
In the early 60s June and Rod began bringing the kids to Montana each summer to camp in the Swan. In 1969 they bought 10 acres and a log cabin in the area to use in the summers, began adding on to it and started a garden. When they retired in 1986 they moved from California to the cabin.
With retirement June had even more time for volunteering. She organized the seniors of the Upper Swan into an AARP chapter that got together monthly. She was active in the Upper Swan Valley Historical Society, Alpine Artisans, and Swan Valley Connections. June and Rod were founding members of the Swan Citizens’ ad hoc Committee which developed the Swan Ecosystem Center. And they sought out the nearest Audubon chapter.
June and Rod had been charter members of a new Audubon chapter back in California, and were involved in that chapter’s activities. Shortly after they moved to the Swan they found Flathead Audubon, and volunteered their services. FAS immediately enlisted June and Rod for the Board, put Rod in charge of Conservation, and made June Membership Chair. June served on the Board and concurrently as Membership Chair for 12 years.
In 1993 June and Rod also took on management of the FAS annual Bird Seed Sale, and served in this capacity until shortly before Rod passed away in 2006. Rod would arrange to have several hundred sacks of black oil sunflower seed brought from eastern Montana. June would figure out how many sacks should be dropped on “seed day” at each of the pick-up sites scattered from Eureka to Condon, organize the volunteers who handed out the sacks at the sites, and kept track of it all. At that time, the annual seed sale was Flathead Audubon’s primary source of income. Not until the early 2000s, after roughly a decade of rapid growth and expansion of the education program, did the chapter need to develop new sources of income. It was June’s organizational efforts that funded FAS through that decade of growth.
June and Rod received many awards for their work on conservation, including Volunteer of the Year from the Swan Ecosystem Center, the Flathead National Forest Danny On Award, and Montana Audubon’s Lifetime Achievement Award. After Rod passed, his friend Art Ortenberg funded for 5 years an annual “Raptor Day in Honor of Rod Ash” at Lone Pine, organized by Flathead Audubon. It included a half-day of talks on raptors and raptor conservation, which June opened with stories about Rod and his conservation work, and with a passionate talk on the importance of conservation. FAS continued to hold “Raptor Day” even after the 5 years. It eventually morphed into our annual “Birds of Prey Festival”.
In 2019 June turned 90. Three FAS “old timers” visited her in her nursing home to bring birthday congratulations from the chapter. For over an hour she entertained us with funny stories and tales from her time in the Swan, talked about birds, and about politics (she was up on all the latest developments), and about life in general. Near the end of our visit she told us: “I’m doing fine here. Remember that life is as good as you make it.”
June Ash made a good life for herself and for all those around her. Through her volunteer efforts she helped build organizations that continue to make many lives better. Flathead Audubon was fortunate to have her on our team, and many in FAS have been fortunate to know her as a friend. In June’s own words, she enjoyed a very good life, she not only gave but also received as well. She felt blessed.
A celebration of June’s life will take place Sunday at 1 PM June 26th in the Swan Valley Community Hall. June’s family suggests that gifts in June’s memory can be made to Flathead Audubon.
You can hear June and Rod tell their own stories in four interviews housed in the Mansfield Library at U of M: https://scholarworks.umt.edu/upperswanvalley_oralhistory/67/ on life and conservation in the Swan; https://scholarworks.umt.edu/upperswanvalley_oralhistory/38/ on gardening in the Swan; https://scholarworks.umt.edu/upperswanvalley_oralhistory/44/ on life and community in the Swan; https://scholarworks.umt.edu/nwmt-ffla/3/ on their summer at Big Swede Lookout. The links give you both a recording of the interview and a written transcript.