On April 28, 2016, Conrad Burns died peacefully in his home in Billings, Mont. He was well known to Montanans for his service in the U.S. Senate from 1989 to 2007. His history, from his birth in 1935 in Gallatin, Mo., to his military service, to his various jobs prior to and including politics, has been outlined in a number of articles on the news of his passing. In the early 60’s, Conrad moved to Montana. It was there he married Phyllis Kuhlmann, whom he met previously at her father’s bull sales in North Platte, Neb. while he was working for Polled Hereford Association.
To hear him tell it, when he moved to Billings and discovered that Phyllis had also moved there to teach, he called her up to ask her to a movie and she responded, “Yes, I’ll marry you” (her version of the story is a little different: she had her roommate turn him down because she had stayed home that day with laryngitis).
Before entering politics, Conrad was a bit of a jack-of-all-trades: cattle trader, auctioneer, high school football referee, radio and television ag broadcaster.
He participated in Rotary and the Al Bedoo Shrine, both in the marching corps and the Black Horse Patrol. He was an avid golfer and a world traveler. Did you know that during his broadcasting years, he and Phyllis used to escort groups on trips with Blue Caboose Tour Agency? They went to Australia, New Zealand and Fiji 5 times, as well as on cruises with destinations such as the Panama Canal, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii. He had visited every state in the US and every continent on the planet. Not bad for a kid who grew up on a farm he used to refer to as “two rocks and one dirt” in Northwest Missouri.
You may have read about Conrad’s accolades during his time in the U.S. Senate, including championing small business, rural telecommunications, conservation and agriculture issues. You may not be aware that he is also in the Montana Handball Hall of Fame. At least he used to tell us he is, we’re not even sure there is a Montana Handball Hall of Fame. But if there is, he’d sure be in it.
He attended a few years of college at University of Missouri, and has a number honorary degrees, including one from The School of Hard Knocks, presented to him by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV). The telecommunications center in the engineering department at Montana State University is even named after him. He didn’t graduate college, instead opting to leave school and join the US Marine Corps. He was often asked what he got his degree in, and would usually say that he had an NDBA: No Degree, but Boss Anyway.
In addition to his wife, Phyllis, of Billings, he will be missed by his daughter, Dr. Keely Godwin and her husband Noah, of Durham, N.C., and his son, Garrett Burns and his wife, Kate, of Alexandria, Va., as well as his sister, Judy Norris, of Middlebrook, Va. He also leaves three grandchildren, Ella Godwin (10), Isobel Burns (6), and Riley Burns (1). He was pretty sure that they were the best grandchildren God ever gave a man, and we are inclined to agree with him.
At the pearly gates, he will be greeted by his parents, Russell and Mary Frances Burns, his brother-in-law, Stan Norris, as well as his daughter, Kate, who passed away at age of 15 in 1985. This is in addition to the dear friends and relatives who have gone ahead, including one of his best friends in the U.S. Senate, Ted Stevens of Alaska (1923-2010), who probably already has the poker game and cigars set up and waiting for him.
Visitation will be Thursday, May 5, from 5 to 8 p.m. at Smith Funeral Home, at 925 S. 27th St, Billings, Mont.
Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. on Friday, May 6, at the MetraPark Arena. Instead of sending flowers, his family would prefer that you make a donation to the charitable organization of your choice. If you can’t pick one, then we recommend either the Shriner’s Hospitals for Children, your local food bank, or the Kate Burns Memorial Scholarship at Atonement Lutheran Church in Billings, Mont.