Dona Jean (Smith) Rivers, the fixer, her husband on his eternal trip, her family raised, her work done, died November 13, 2020 at the residence she and her husband Luke made into their cherished family home of fifty four years. Dona was born in Milwaukee Wisconsin on August 8, 1930 to Ernest and Sadie (Towne) Smith. Dona never met her older brother Richard (Dick) who died in a car accident at eighteen months of age. The death of a child no matter the age, carries a special connection with a parent beyond understanding in the ordinary world. Years later as Dona sat with her dying mother, Sadie’s last expressed thoughts were of a lifetime ago and her deceased toddler, Dick. Dona learned of her daughter Michelle’s death five years ago on the evening of November 13, 2015. Five years later, on the same calendar day, day of the week and near the same hour, Dona quietly left this world.
Dona, now the oldest child of Ernest (Smitty) and Sadie, was soon joined by brothers Russ and Mike while the family lived on the grounds of the Milwaukee Soldiers Home where Smitty worked for the War Department. Smitty’s career as a government employee would lead the family on a series of moves across the country to Helena and back. While in Helena, younger brothers Jim and Ernie completed the Smith family and unbeknownst to all at the time, the orphaned Luke Rivers would meet his future father-in-law when Smitty played Santa to the children at St. Joseph’s orphan’s home where Luke was residing. During World War II, the Smith family moved from Helena to the middle and deep south as Smitty served in the administration of war department projects in Fostoria Ohio, Chattanooga and Columbia Tennessee, Atlanta Georgia, and Mobile Alabama. These moves created a special bond with Dona and her brothers as the Smith children it seemed, were always “the new kids” at school. As the war and Smitty’s time in government service ended the family moved back to Helena. The move provided Dona the stability she longed for in her young life. Dona attended all four years of high school at Cathedral High. While in high school, Dona played basketball for the Cathedral High Greenies and enjoyed many good times hanging out with friends at the Parrot Confectionery. Dona graduated from Cathedral High in 1948. Soon after graduation, her father’s health dictated a family move to Yuma Arizona. Dona tired of moving, chose to stay behind, living with the Creel family and working as secretary for Monsignor Riley in the registrar’s office at Carroll College. While on the college’s senior class picnic Dona would draw the attention of Luke Rivers. The Monday after the picnic, Monsignor Riley requested that Dona bring him Luke’s student records. After a brief study of Luke’s academic file, Monsignor gave Dona his approval of the budding courtship, sealing the near 70-year union of Luke and Dona.
On a whirlwind weekend of life events in May of 1951, the young couple exchanged wedding vows on Saturday, Luke graduated from college on Sunday and began his new job as the business manager for Carroll College on Monday. In the next decade, this mutually supportive duo excel at life with Luke attaining his MBA degree, CPA license and professorship at Carroll; while Dona bloomed into motherhood bearing five girls and one son while providing Luke the home and foundation he needed to pursue his professional career. In the 1960’s Dona’s motherly nature and tenderness for those in need of a mom would extend to two Cuban evacuees from the civil unrest in their birth country, by taking Ana and Martha Plasencia, into her and Luke’s home until the girls’ remaining family could escape to Florida. Later that decade, life would give Luke and Dona a surprise with the birth of their seventh child. Their family complete, an opportunity allowed the couple to establish the permanent roots they both longed for and the home they would come to cherish in Anaconda.
Dona had a system and well thought out way of doing nearly every household task. Dona was masterful at making use of whatever materials and resources she had available. She made her girls and their neighborhood friends paper dolls and cardboard horses that were far more entertaining than a store-bought toy. She made all her children’s mittens, slippers, winter hats and her daughters’ school dresses. Dona sewed countless prom dresses and made several of her daughter’s wedding and bridesmaid dresses. Dona used her artistic talents not only in making toys and clothing but also in remodeling and decorating. Her painting and wallpapering were flawless and the two times she hired contractors to make renovations to her home, she sketched construction plans for the contractors to follow. Dona could fix and repair almost any broken toy before her child’s tears dried, except Baby First Step, she never walked again.
Growing up with four younger brothers, Dona did not shy away from physical competition, boasting that she could hit a baseball as well as any boy, yet she was always the motherly older sister. Even in adulthood, her brothers sought her advice and avoided her displeasure. As much as her husband Luke, loved to travel Dona relished staying home, except for golf. Dona thoroughly enjoyed her brother Jim’s generous “Smith family vacations” to the Hawaiian golf resorts of Kapalua and Mauna Lani and willingly traveled to Jim’s golf resort near Eureka Montana, spending weeks at a time with her brothers and their families. As the aches and pains of aging caught up with Dona, she blamed her “bad arm” on all the golf she played with her brothers.
Where Dona excelled most was simply being Mom. Her children ventured into the world with the security of knowing they always had Mom and the family home to return to should life knock them around. In times of crisis or trouble, big or small, Dona was there. When her oldest son fought in the Iraq war, it was Dona’s reassuring voice on late night phone calls that injected him with the strength he needed to serve our country. When her daughter went through a painful rehabilitation from a car accident Dona was there through each therapy session. When her daughters became mothers, Dona was there to reassure, teach and support them. Dona addressed the minor travails and misdemeanors of her children’s adolescence in her own way without the need of immediately burdening Luke. In time these youthful transgressions did come out, usually at a family dinner, after Luke was primed for the revelation with wine or Irish coffee, the statute of limitations for scolding or punishment safely passed, replaced by time, with laughter at the predicament and lesson the child learned. Raising seven of her own children and filling in as a stand-by mom for others, Dona knew how to handle almost any situation. When her young daughter needed to learn the importance of reporting her whereabouts; a day harnessed to the clothesline drove the point home more than words ever could. When her daughter threatened to run away, Dona slyly called the child’s bluff by suggesting she take a sandwich since it might be a long trip. When her youngest son threw a temper tantrum by banging his head on the sidewalk, Dona shrugged and reassured her alarmed daughters saying, “he’ll stop when it hurts”. Dona’s motherly wisdom and comfort was extended to many of the Rivers kid’s friends too, making special connections with those in need of a mom and rescuing more than one from adolescent indiscretions before returning them to the security of their own parents. Dona filled her home with pictures of her grandchildren and great grandchildren, taking great delight in the rambunctious great grandchildren’s play in her home. Dona would save clippings from the local paper for her grandson’s girlfriend, Faith, whenever Faith’s younger brother made the paper. Her acute understanding and importance for stability was extended to her grandchildren during times of divorce and upheaval in their young lives and to her Nieces at the death of their father, Dona’s brother, Russ. Knowing what it is like to have to leave friends, Dona found room in her home for Gary Mondick, allowing him to graduate high school with his friends when his parents had to move from Anaconda in his senior year.
Dementia is a cruel and undefeatable adversary, yet Dona fought hard against it, handling the failing of her own mind like any other matter that needed fixing. As the daily tasks of life became a challenge for her she relied on her systems and routines to do as much for herself as she possibly could no matter how long the task took. When she could no longer fix things, she would formulate a solution and enlist her children to carry it out. When cooking meals was beyond her, she insisted on continuing to help by setting the table and drying the dishes. Upon realizing last spring that the dying man in her living room was her husband she simply sat next to him and held his hand. Upon returning to her cherished residence from the nursing home days before her own death, she was overwhelmed with tears of gratitude. She let her daughters know she knew where she was by pointing out that a few throw pillows were on the wrong couch. She made a connection with her college aged grandson, providing him confirmation that he is making the right career choice and inspiring him to reach well beyond the judgments adults in his early life made of him. Knowing that her family was with her and that they were going to be alright; Dona quietly slipped away on her own terms at a time most meaningful to her.
Dona was preceded in death by her husband Luke, her daughter Michelle ‘Mike’ Teilborg, Son-in-law John ‘Pete’ Peterson, her parents, her brothers Richard and Russell and Sister-in-law Edith Smith.
Dona is survived by her brothers and sisters-in-law Michael (Lois) Smith and James (Lynn) Smith; and brother Ernest Smith; daughters and sons-in-law, Sheila (Nate) Wilson, Annie (Mike) Furukawa and Mary (Bill) Hunt; son and daughter-in-law, Bob (Theresa) Rivers; son-in-law, Tom Teilborg; daughter Deb Peterson, and son Rich Rivers; grandchildren and (spouses): Patrick (Shad) Scott-Wilson, Melinda (Brandon) Allen, Tom (Haley) Wilson, Jennie (Greg) Coen, Michael (Bridget) Teilborg, Sadie Teilborg, John (Catherine) Casagranda, Chris Furukawa, James Furukawa, Zach Rivers, Jake Rivers, Caitlin Rivers, Eli (Sayward) Hunt, Jared (Elizabeth) Hunt, Ryan Rivers, Connor (Jeanne) Rivers, Riley Rivers and Kelan Rivers; great-grandchildren; Deacon, Ellie, John, George, Hank, Gunner, Max, Tucker and Declan; and numerous nephews and nieces.
Dona has been cremated. Her family looks forward to hugs and laughs with friends and family in a celebration of Dona and Luke’s life next summer at the family cabin on Warm Springs Creek. Notification will be provided when more normalcy returns to all our lives and large gatherings can safely occur.
Dona and her family are very grateful for the wonderful and compassionate care she received from Eddie Amberg, the staff at the Granite County Nursing home and Compasses Hospice.
In lieu of flowers, the family would be greatly honored by a donation to the Granite County Nursing Home, your local Hospice, or Special Olympics.
A Celebration of Luke and Dona's Life will be held on Saturday, September 11, 2021 at the Rivers Family Cabin, 1117 Warm Springs Creek Rd. at 1:00 p.m. A luncheon and toast will follow. Valet parking will be provided for those with mobility issues.
Directions – Traveling West on MT HWY 1 after passing mile marker 19, turn right on Warm Springs Creek Road, proceed 1 mile to the first residence on the left. Location will be marked.
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