Frank L. Bretz
Frank Bretz passed away on Thursday, September 28, 2023, at the age of 97.
He was born on May 9, 1926, in St. Joseph, Missouri. At six months old, he and his single mother moved to Darby, Montana, where they survived living in a wall tent for several years. He graduated from Darby High School, moved to Hamilton for a short while, then to Kalispell where he owned a bowling alley for a short time, and then on to Missoula, where he worked as an automotive parts salesman for the Motor Supply Company.
Frank married Viola “Vi” Simmons on June 14, 1953. Their son Mark was born in 1957, and son David followed in 1960. Frank’s love of his family and faith in Jesus Christ were constants throughout his life. Over the years, Frank attended church services at Assembly of God Church (now Christian Life Center), Lolo Community Church, and Faith Baptist Church. And that brings to mind a story of how he helped his boys “find religion”.
The story goes that Mark and Dave went to church with the Bensons, life-long friends of the family. Frank and Vi stayed behind to continue working on the building that they were getting ready to house their new RV dealership at Kensington and Regent. Neither Mark, Dave nor their friend Jeff Benson has claimed responsibility for the idea, but one of them thought it would be brilliant if their hamsters found religion too, so the boys hid them in their shirt pockets and took them to church. What could go wrong? Well, let’s just say Frank was not impressed and this was the only time he took the belt to both Mark and Dave.
In the early 1960’s, he and Vi leased a small Conoco service station near the intersection of South, Brooks and Russell in Missoula. They sold gasoline, repaired automobiles, and rented U-Haul trailers. Their work as small business owners was consuming to say the least, and Mark remembers that while he was attending the nearby Jefferson Elementary School, he would go to the Tastee-Freez across the street from the service station for his “hot lunch” program. After buying lunch by using a charge account, he would stand on the sidewalk and holler at the top of his lungs across Brooks Street until an employee of the service station would come over and walk him across the busy street to have lunch with his Dad and Mom.
Dave also has fond memories of these early days. He remembers walking to the service station from kindergarten and restocking the oil cans there. It was his first job and for his efforts he received a nickel a day, cash money.
Frank and Vi loved camping with their family, which led to them to opening Bretz Trailer Sales and Rentals at this location in 1967, where camper repair parts were readily available from the “Parts Department” housed in the back of a pickup truck covered with a canopy.
Dave also remembers that it was about this time that he first heard his father swear. It was late in 1969, and Frank was on the phone with the Direct Sales Representative from Conoco. The guy was telling Frank that he needed to make a choice - either get out of the RV business or cancel his lease on the service station. Apparently Frank did not need much time to ponder the question, because he immediately responded: “The damn key will be under the doormat on January 1st.”
In 1970, they built a new facility at the corner of Kensington and Regent with Missoula’s first self-service gas pumps, nearly an entire acre of display space, and one 40-foot service bay. In the early 1980s, Frank and Vi stepped away from day-to-day operations at the dealership to spend more time in Mesa, Arizona. Frank and Vi officially retired in 1990.
From its humble beginnings, Bretz Trailer Sales has grown over the last several decades into one of the largest RV dealership groups in the northwest. Frank was so proud of his family and how they grew the business he started into what it has become today. Frank loved that the Bretz family has been able to help so many other families enjoy the outdoor lifestyle. He always said that RVing is one of the best ways a family can spend time together.
Beyond his family business, Frank pursued a diverse variety of passions. Whether engaging in a spirited game of tennis, crafting woodworking creations, or indulging in his lifelong love of aviation, Frank was a man who refused to sit still. His Missoula garage bore witness to countless projects over the years, from fashioning toaster tongs as gifts, to building corn-hole games, to teaching his great-grandsons how to build wall-mounted clothing racks and custom Adirondack chairs. He made sure to take the time to teach them every step along the way. His granddaughter Chelsea remembers him being extremely patient as he helped them figure out the measurements for the projects. During this hands-on education, Jack noticed that the math he had been learning at school was actually useful. This was Jack and Luke’s first time using woodworking tools, so Frank always made sure they understood what they were doing before they began as he wanted to make sure they were safe in everything they did.
At the impressive age of 80, Frank accomplished a remarkable feat by obtaining his full instrument rating pilot's license, a milestone the FAA acknowledged had never been achieved by anyone else at that age. Perhaps the pinnacle of his endeavors was his 9-year construction of his own RV9A kit airplane, which took its inaugural flight on the ominous date of Friday, January 13, 2012, when Frank was 85 years old. There seemed to be no limit to what Frank could build; if he could imagine it, he could create it. As a matter of fact, in preparation for the future, his most recent undertaking was the construction of his very own casket.
Frank was also an amateur (ham) radio operator. His call sign was K7EBE. He enjoyed being able to talk to people from all over the world on his radio, as well as building radios and going to the annual “Ham-fests” in Glacier Park.
Another trait of Frank’s was that he always made his bed in the morning, even in the final months when he was on a walker and it seemed like a struggle to get from bed to bathroom to kitchen for breakfast. Today, you will notice a stuffed bear near Frank’s casket. That bear was something he had when he was a child. Somehow it went missing in action for years, but a couple of years ago, it resurfaced. Every day his bed was made with the bear sitting on it.
It is also important to note that Frank and Vi had a heart for helping people out when they were down. Some of you here today were the recipients of that showing of love. Mark and Dave recall that it seemed like while they were growing up, there was always someone that they were helping out. Often this help included letting people live with them, until they were in a better place.
As mentioned above, Frank always had a love of aviation. Mark recently found a receipt from the early 1940’s, where he rented a plane and had an instructor. The plane rental was $3/hour and the instructor was $2/ hour. During Mark and Dave’s childhood, family vacations often included stops at every airport along the way to see what kinds of airplanes were there. Early on, Frank and Vi did not have the money that allowed him to fly until the mid 1970’s, when he was finally able to finish his training and get his private pilot’s license. He loved the fact that he could finally fly, but shortly after that Vi got sick and he became her caretaker. It was during this time that Frank told Mark that if something were to happen to him while he was flying, he didn’t know who would take care of Vi, so he put his flying on the shelf. Only after Vi passed away did he go back to flying. Luckily, he met a woman that was supportive of his passion. She not only urged him to fly, she went along and pushed him to start building an airplane of his own. After he completed building the plane, he was fortunate enough to be able to get a personalized “N” number. N5926B, his birthdate, May 9, 1926, and the first initial of his last name.
One more thing. Simply put, Frank loved to eat. Not sure if this was because he was raised during the Depression, or whether Vi was such a good cook, maybe both, but he always cleaned his plate. Even in the last few months of his life, a typical morning would find him heating up some biscuits and sausage gravy that his caregiver Trish had made for him. He could also be a simple eater. Often his family would suggest some dinner idea, and he would reply by saying he really just wanted bread and milk. In the final week while he was at the hospital, he was eating his breakfast and he looked up at Mark and said “They must work at cooking food that has so little taste”. An annual event for him was going to the Montana Club on his birthday, where they discounted his meal by his age. In recent years when the discount was over 90%, he kept asking if they were going to pay him if he got over 100, and they assured him they would. It’s unfortunate that he never made them pay. A fitting tribute is that the night before his passing, instead of hospital food, his grandsons brought him a Montana Club steak. Of course he ate all of it.
Frank was preceded in death by his first wife Vi in May 2000, after 46 years of marriage. He was later married to Carolyn Steenson until her passing in 2010, and then to Dora Hughes until her passing in 2018. He is survived by his sons David and Mark (Barbara) Bretz of Missoula, as well as 8 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. He was able to live independently up until his death, primarily because of Trish Madsen, a treasured friend and caregiver who he considered the daughter he never had, and neighbors, Ryan and Polly Butler.
The family will receive visitors during the viewing scheduled between 11:30 AM and 1:30 PM. The funeral and memorial service in honor of his life will take place at Garden City Funeral Home in Missoula on Thursday, October 5, at 2:00 PM, with a reception to follow. Following the reception, a private burial service will be held at Sunset Memorial Gardens. In lieu of flowers, the family kindly requests that donations be made to a local pet rescue organization or Camp Utmost https://www.camputmost.org/.