Another one of America’s “Greatest Generation” has died. Donald Wilmot “Don” Cullen of Helena passed away peacefully the morning of June 26, 2020, at Rocky Mountain Care Center in Helena, Montana. He was 96.
Ever the planner, Don was able to make his own decision about hospice, make his final wishes known, and ensure that his personal accounts were in order. Don passed away less than 5 days after his beloved wife Ruth, having fulfilled his desire that she not be left behind.
Don was born September 15, 1923, to Lucy and Wilmot Cullen in Winamac, Indiana. Soon after his birth, the family moved to Chicago, IL, where Don, soon joined by his younger brother Ross, were raised until 1940 when the family moved back to Winamac. Don graduated in 1941 from Winamac High School.
With WWII raging, Don was called into active duty with the U.S. Army Air Corps in February 1943, rising to the rank of Staff Sergeant. From December 1943 through December 1945, Don served overseas in the China-Burma-India (CBI) theater of operations at the USAAC air base in Chabua, India with the 1333 AAFBU. Don returned home to Winamac after discharge in late December, 1945, arriving on the very day his parents were notified that his missing-in-action brother Ross had been officially declared killed in action. Don’s brother Ross was the navigator of a B-17 shot down over Germany early that year on January 2, 1945.
Don set his sights on a college degree and the adventure of exploring a different part of the country, enrolling at the University of Montana on the G.I. Bill. He was a member of the Theta Chi fraternity, the Druids Forestry school honorary, and was Chief Push for the annual forestry ball. He graduated with a Forestry degree in 1952 and worked in that field for one year. While at school, Don’s best friend and fraternity brother Bill Gibson and future wife Dinny Nelligan introduced Don to Elaine Lund. The two were married March 22, 1953, in Boulder, MT. Don and Elaine lived in Boulder for the first few years to help Elaine’s parents, and moved to Helena after Elaine’s father passed in 1957.
In July, 1958, Don and Elaine adopted a 3-month-old baby girl they named Constance LuAnn (Connie) from Shodair Children’s Hospital in Helena. Their friends the Gibsons subsequently adopted two children themselves, and the families remained lifelong friends. Don and Elaine were wonderful parents to Connie, and they love the three shared was beyond measure. Connie was also surrounded by the love of Don and Elaine’s extended family, including the Cullen grandparents who had moved out from Indiana, maternal grandmother Lottie Lund, and Elaine’s many wonderful aunts and uncles. Don took wonderful care of his parents in their later years, visiting them every day, and expanded his household to include mother-in-law Lottie in her final 6 years. His wife Elaine passed away in 1988, a few months after the celebration of their 35th wedding anniversary.
When Don met Ruth Smith after the passing of Elaine, the connection was immediate. Romance bloomed, aided by a mutual friend who suggested that Ruth invite that handsome Don over for a roast beef dinner. They seriously considered the question of marriage, wondering in their 60’s if one would end up caring for the other in a few short years. They decided if they had a good 10 years together, it would be worth it, and proceeded with a beautiful wedding in 1990 attended by their 5 adult children and their spouses. Don and Ruth’s marriage lasted just shy of 30 years and was definitely worth it. Don dearly loved their two joined families, participating in family activities and welcoming numerous grandchildren and more recently, great-grandchildren. Don introduced Ruth to square dancing, and she shared her love of travel. They enjoyed many memorable trips, including visiting his brother Ross’ grave in the U.S. Military Cemetery in Luxembourg.
Don was a hard-working, honest and respected businessman. He went into business for himself, first at a service station in Boulder. He then owned and operated Cullen’s 66 Service in downtown Helena, adding a second station on the east side some years later. Don providing jobs and guidance to many people over the years, and prided himself on providing excellent service to his customers. After he sold the stations in 1969, Don put his business and leadership skills to good use as the office manager at Steffeck Equipment Company (his favorite job), Valentine Oil and Cummins Electric. Never one to consider retiring, Don became a bus driver in 1986, driving for Hall Transit, Treasure State Transit and Rocky Mountain Development Council. He took a keen interest in his riders, fellow drivers and the office staff, knowing everyone by name.
Don absolutely loved people. He was genuinely interested in everyone he met, was endlessly curious, and always put others first. Don was a longstanding member of First Presbyterian Church, serving both as an elder and a deacon. Don was a past president of Helena Civitan Club and past director of the Helena Community Concert Association. Both Don and Ruth were HOSTS volunteers where they read to schoolchildren, and were active members of the Helena Metropolitan Dinner Club and Last Chance Square Dance Club. Don was a longtime board member of the condo associations for Somerset and Prospect Heights. Don was also in the Helena Bicycle Club; he rode in the Seattle to Portland (STP) bicycle ride first at age 73, then again at age 75, and completed the Double Divide Ride in Montana. When he was no longer up for the long rides, he volunteered at the refreshment stations.
Don was preceded in death by his first wife Elaine, second wife Ruth, parents Wilmot and Lucy Cullen, and brother Ross. Survivors include his daughter Connie L. (William) Lange of Newcastle, WA; granddaughter Allison M. (Matt) Macy of Albany, OR; stepchildren David (Karlee) Smith, Marcia (Warren) Patrick, Brad (Leslie) Smith, and Pam (Dan) Prebil; and grandchildren Stacy, Chris, Michelle, Rachel, Jessie, Katie, Josh and Danielle.
Don’s family wishes to express their appreciation to the doctors, nurses, and staff of both St. Peter’s Hospital and Rocky Mountain Care Center for all their care and support during Don’s last few months.
A private family service will be held for both Don and Ruth at First Presbyterian Church, followed by a public service for Don on Thursday, July 2, at 11:30 a.m. at Sunset Memorial Gardens for internment of ashes with military honors. Don’s family welcomes all who can join us at the gravesite service, and asks that everyone wear masks and do social distancing to ensure everyone’s good health.
Remembrances in Don’s name may be made to the American Red Cross of Helena, Helena Foodshare at P.S. Box 943, Helena MT 59624-0943, or to the charity of your choice.
When you see one of America’s aging veterans, thank them for their service to our country. It means a lot to them.