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Nan Klassen


Nan (Bernstein) Klassen died on Thursday, Oct. 6 2016, t Spring Creek Inn, a memory care facility in Bozeman, Mont. After a long decline from dementia, she passed away peacefully in her sleep early in the morning. She was 89.

In lieu of a funeral or memorial service, the family intends to hold a celebration of Nan’s life next summer at the family home in Bigfork, Mont. Cremation has taken place.

She was born Nan Bernstein in 1927, the middle daughter of Fritz Bernstein and the former Margaret Niccolls, in Grand Island, Neb. Along with her older sister, Mary, and younger brother, Tom, she and her family moved to Columbus, Neb., during her teenage years, where she graduated as salutatorian from Kramer High School in 1945.

She graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s degree in home economics and nutrition, and later earned a master’s degree in public health from the School of Public Health at Harvard University.

She was a strong, indomitable woman who believed deeply in helping others and speaking her mind, even as a bout of polio in her early childhood left her with a slight but lifelong limp, and reduced vision in one eye meant her glasses were never more than an arm’s reach away. Throughout her life, she took many people from all walks of life under her wing, acting as friend, mentor and surrogate family to those in need.

Before her marriage, she worked at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., traveled the state of Michigan while working for the public health department, and worked for the Women and Children’s Hospital in Buffalo, N.Y.

She met Leonard Klassen at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, where she was teaching pediatric nutrition and he was completing his medical residency. They married in 1961 and moved to Alberta, Canada, where Leonard practiced as a doctor and Nan pursued her career as a dietician and nutritionist in hospitals, schools and nursing homes.

She and Leonard started their family in Canada, with the arrival of John in Edmonton in 1963 and Tom in High Prairie in 1964. The family moved as Leonard practiced medicine in Devils Lake, N.D .; Milk River, Alberta; and Rolette, N.D. Leonard joined the Smith Clinic in Glasgow, and daughter Jane was born in Glasgow in 1966. The family thrived in Glasgow for the next 17 years.

Music was a lifelong source of joy and inspiration for Nan. She learned to play the piano as a young girl, and was playing for her Sunday school classes by the age of 9. A gifted piano player and accomplished sight-reader, she played the piano and organ for many decades to follow. During her time at Iowa State, she played in several local big bands, including the Dean Bushnell Orchestra, which gave her the opportunity to stay out past the curfew imposed on women students. She liked to tell her children how, as a young woman in Boston, she bought symphony tickets even before paying for a phone to be installed. As she said to a reporter for the Daily Inter Lake in November 2000, “The first thing I did [in Boston] was buy a season ticket to the symphony. If it meant I might sometimes be hungry, that was okay.”

During the Depression, when times were tight in Grand Island, a kind piano teacher gave Nan twice-weekly lessons, even though her parents could only afford one lesson a week. As an adult, she took this kindness to heart, and often paid for piano lessons for talented young students of limited means. When Glacier High School opened in Kalispell, she donated her grand piano to the school’s music program. Throughout her life, she was a volunteer accompanist for school orchestras, choirs and community theater productions as well as for church services, where she nurtured a love of Bach.

In Montana, she continued her work as a dietician while raising their family. Through the government’s Head Start program, she worked to improve conditions for Native American children on the surrounding reservations, combining good nutrition with early education.

She and Leonard enjoyed entertaining, and she was known to their community of friends as an intrepid hostess and adventurous cook, who loved learning about new dishes and foreign cuisines from colleagues and friends. In an era of Chef Boyardee and Hamburger Helper, she stocked her pantry with exotic items like gallon jugs of Kikkoman soy sauce (purchased at a favorite Asian grocery store just across the Canadian border) and served otherwise unknown dishes like fresh artichokes, homemade Rice-a-Roni, and popovers with flair.

After 17 years in Glasgow, she and Leonard moved to Columbus, for six years before finding a home overlooking Flathead Lake in Bigfork. They quickly became regulars at Showthyme, the downtown restaurant opened in 1990 by Blu and Rose Funk, who became lifelong family friends.

After Leonard died in 1994, she continued to live in Bigfork, eating dinner at “her” table several times a week at Showthyme and donating her time and support to many causes around the Flathead Valley. At a time in her life when many enjoy sleeping in, she was up and out of the house by 7 o’clock in the morning to volunteer as an accompanist with the Bigfork High School choir, getting to know a generation of children through her piano playing. She was a founding member, generous supporter, and organist for the Flathead Valley United Church of Christ in Kalispell. She also attended concerts and supported the Glacier Symphony and Chorale (formerly the Flathead Valley Chamber Orchestra). A great fan of the Canadian Honens Piano Competition for emerging young artists, she traveled to Germany, New York City, and Calgary over the years to watch the trials.

She was very happy to become a grandmother, and treasured the time she spent with her four grandchildren.

Her final years were marked by the onset of dementia, yet during that time she revealed a cheerful, almost mischievous side, telling stories of her childhood, family, and early years as long as she was able, and occasionally playing the piano.

She is survived by three children, John, of San Ramon, Calif., Tom of Windsor, Calif., and Jane Klassen of Bozeman; her daughters-in-law, Joyce Klassen and Stephanie Klassen; one son-in-law, Rob Walker; four grandchildren, Fiona and Hugh Klassen and Hardin and Magrath Walker.

Memorials in her honor may be sent to local symphonies and choirs, or to organizations supporting musical education and young musicians.

Arrangements are in the care of Dokken-Nelson Funeral Service.


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