James Leonard “Jim” Esp

May 2, 1928 - March 14, 2019
Thursday, March 21, 2019
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James Leonard “Jim” Esp, a true American patriot and gentlemen of the old school, died March 14 in the kitchen that he shared with his wife of almost 70 years, Shirley.

Jim was born May 2, 1928 to Myrtle (McInerny) and Leonard Esp and joined his older brother, Ray (Rita) and sisters Charlotte (Lloyd Ronning) and Betty (Bob Leicht) at the family ranch on Upper Deer Creek. He never missed an opportunity to share how grateful he was to have grown up with the loving parents he was given. His beloved siblings and their spouses were close friends throughout his life.

Jim was deeply patriotic and proud of his country and his heritage as an American. Just days after his 17th birthday, before his graduation from Sweet Grass County High School, Jim enlisted in the Navy. He was scheduled to ship out of California to the South Pacific when the Japanese surrendered to MacArthur aboard the USS Missouri. He contended, “The Japanese heard I was coming and just gave up.”

When he stood for the national anthem, he stood as straight and tall as he could muster to honor those men that fought for our freedom and those that sacrificed their lives for us. He was profoundly grateful for the service of the “real veterans” as he termed them, and was careful to impart that value to his children when the opportunity arose.

During his time in the Navy, he began writing to Shirley Rich, a pretty blonde haired girl back home. Jim and Shirley were eventually married Sept. 4, 1949 in the Big Timber Lutheran Church, the church in which his grandfather was a charter member and he and Shirley were active members for all of his 90 years. His love for Shirley was beyond measure.

After the service, Jim worked for City Food Market. In the early ‘50s, he and his brother, Raymond, leased and operated parts of their father’s ranch. In 1955 they each purchased a share of the ranch. In 1965 Jim sold his interest to his brother. During this time, he and Shirley welcomed their four oldest children John (Stoney) Esp, Sue (Rich) Knudson, Doug (Shelley) Esp, and Eric (Tracy) Esp. Jim sometimes talked of struggles of low livestock prices during that time, but he remembered fondly the potato patches, work horses and the blessing of having extended family nearby. Jim eventually went to work for the Ford dealerships both in Laurel and then back in Big Timber. During these years, they welcomed their younger two children Mark (Kelli) Esp and Jane (Rob) Bailey. He believed that service to all his customers was of paramount importance. They knew they could rely on him at any time of the day or night to get needed parts to fix a broken baler or pickup. At 71 years young, he retired from Stetson Ford after 37 years in the business.

He and Shirley then went to work with their son, Doug, at Beaver Meadows Ranch. This was a special time in his life — being surrounded by the beauty of the Main Boulder and the opportunity to work side-by-side with his son and his treasured grandchildren, “the wild bunch.” Later in life, he was a census taker and loved meeting and visiting with everyone along his travels as he marveled at the beauty of the rural Montana he held dear.

He was a community leader, modeling the values of service to others and his community. He was a member of the Pioneer Home Board, chairman of the SGHS board when the new school was built, a member of the Jaycees, and at the end of his life, the treasurer of the Senior Citizens Center. For over 30 years he spent his Sunday afternoons delivering tapes of the Lutheran Church service to those in the rest home or those otherwise unable to attend. As coordinator of the punt, pass and kick program, he was able to travel with some of Big Timber’s finest athletes and citizens to many competitions across the country. His travels with and to visit his children and family found him enthralled with the grandeur of Alaska and Canada and captivated by the simple splendor of Nevada. He and Shirley spent many years square dancing with friends across Montana.

His wife, children, 17 beloved grandchildren, 14 cherished great grandchildren and numerous nieces and nephews and their families remember him most for his values of faith in God, service to others, genuine love of people, his commitment to bettering the lives of others, his kind and gentle nature, and his sense of humor.

True to his inner spirit, when he left us Thursday morning, his sidewalks (and a lot of his yard) were free of snow. For several years while in his eighties, he shoveled the snow from his walk and yard into the back of his distinctive red and white pickup, hauled it to some undisclosed location, and then he shoveled it out of his truck only to return for several more loads. He had many fine qualities and some long held steadfast beliefs that are collectively labeled by his children as “The Esp Curse.” He was committed to and supportive of every generation of his family and was there for their games, graduations, birthday parties, moves across country or simply a bowl of popcorn or ice cream gathered around the kitchen table or on the front porch.

Services were held Tuesday, March 19 at the Big Timber Lutheran Church with Military honors following at Mountain View Cemetery. Donations in Jim’s memory can be made to Camp Mak-ADream, PO Box 1450, Missoula, MT 59806 or the Crazy Mountain Museum, PO Box 83, Big Timber, MT 59011.

To leave condolences for the family please visit www.stenbergfuneralhome.com.

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