Edwin Fields, a longtime Whitefish resident with a strong will, strong opinions, huge heart, wide-ranging tastes, and a boundless affection for Montana and its wildest places, died on Feb. 10 at the home he built near Les Mason beach, surrounded by his beloved family.
He was 68 years old.
As the owner of a well-known local construction company, Edwin oversaw more than 631 home-building, remodeling, and commercial projects in the Flathead Valley and beyond. As a founder of the local nonprofit Headwaters, he worked to protect the waters of the Flathead River, especially its north fork. As a board member for the Montana Wilderness Association, he worked to preserve areas that federal law says should remain “untrammeled by man,” and as a member of the Whitefish Lakeshore Protection Committee he worked to preserve this city’s lake as both a place for recreation and a secondary civic water supply. He also briefly served as an elected member of the Whitefish City Council in 1992.
Edwin believed that if you were lucky enough to live in Montana you should do something of service, and when he wasn’t doing that himself he was writing his representatives in Helena to urge them to take action (or halt bad actions). His persistence and directness won him respect across party lines.
He was also a man of action at home, where one of his many oft-repeated phrases was, “If I’m not doing anything, I might as well be doing something.”
A talented cook, Edwin liked to spend days each year making a big batch of his special gumbo, which he’d then serve at a party for dozens of friends. He loved planning backpacking and hunting trips, and as part of his work with the Montana Wilderness Association he spent several years sponsoring an annual hike to Krinklehorn Peak that was open to all comers — so long as they came with a song they were prepared to sing on the trail. Edwin had a beautiful voice, and in addition to singing on the trail and around the house he recorded an album at a studio in the valley. On it, he covered some of his favorite songs, including The Grateful Dead’s “Ripple,” Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue,” and Randy Newman’s “Louisiana.”
That might seem to give a sense of his tastes but in truth they ran all over the map, from opera to cheeseburgers. His favorite movies included both Madonna’s “Desperately Seeking Susan” and Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” He was a lifelong fan of “The Pea Green Boat” (a kids’ show on Montana Public Radio) and an equally huge fan of “Afro-Pop Worldwide” (an NPR offering). An all-time favorite laugh: listening to Groucho Marx’s song, “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It.”
Born in 1951 in Missouri, Edwin showed his extroverted side early. At 15, his family watched him dancing on a TV show called “The St. Louis Hop,” a local version of “American Bandstand.” At University City High School he was one of the more popular students and he went on to major in Fine Art at Webster College, now called Webster University. Afterward, he traveled a unique path from St. Louis to the Flathead Valley.
He joined an intentional living community in Oregon. He staffed a call-in line known as “Acid Rescue,” for people having bad LSD trips. In Boulder, Colorado, he continued honing his carpentry skills, which he’d begun learning in high school woodshop class. They merged with his artistic eye to create a lifelong vocation. In 1977, on a blind date, he met the woman who would become his wife of 40 years, Maura.
Looking for a rural place to live, feeling adventurous, and also a bit “young and dumb,” as Maura put it, the two of them showed up in Libby in 1980 with $400 to their name and the promise of a job for Maura at the local hospital. They moved to Whitefish in 1983.
Here they raised their daughter, Lynn-Wood, and son, Colin, as Maura worked in nursing administration and eventually as Chief Clinical Officer for North Valley Hospital. All the while, Edwin built up his construction business.
Through good and bad years in the building trade, Edwin ran his business with passion and integrity. He instilled those values in his children, along with the importance of finding the fun and humor amid life’s absurdities, sorrows, and frustrations. He also made sure that he, his family, and his many companions in outdoor adventure experienced the breadth of Montana’s natural beauty.
It took him four tries, but he made it to the summit of Vulture Peak in Glacier National Park with a group of friends in 2001, hiking off trail much of the way. At the top of the peak, a log book stashed in a rock cairn showed that the last time a person made it up there was two years previous. Along that journey, Edwin, then 50 years old, also got into a naked, middle-of-the-night shouting match with a grizzly that had wandered into camp, an event he wrote about in the 2009 book, “A View Inside Glacier National Park — 100 Years, 100 Stories.”
He floated the Missouri River from McLellan Ferry to the Fred Robinson Bridge for his 60th birthday. He hiked through eight inches of snow in August at Hole in the Wall Falls during a trip from Kintla Lake to Bowman Lake in Glacier National Park. And he walked 70 miles through the Bob Marshall Wilderness to see the massive rock face known as the China Wall. On that trip, Edwin, who always had a lot of friends and acquaintances, walked into a forest service lookout and found that he knew the person living there. She made him and his hiking buddies scones and coffee.
Edwin was also an avid hunter, going out after grouse, elk, and deer that he’d butcher himself, sharing the meat with friends and giving the hides to a local leatherworker. On one trip, he mimicked the movement of antelope to help himself get close enough for a shot.
In 2015, shortly after the United States Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, Edwin officiated at his son Colin’s wedding in Polebridge, Montana. Residents said it was the first gay marriage ever held there.
He was also a major supporter of the O’Shaughnessy Cultural Arts Center, a passionate teacher of Tai Chi, and, in the words of a dear friend who called to talk to him via speakerphone on his last night on earth, just an all around “major dude.”
Edwin is survived by his wife, Maura; his daughter Lynn-Wood, her husband Casey, and grandsons Bryton and Otis; his son Colin and his husband Eli; his sister, Michelle; his brother Bernard and his wife, Margaret; and a wide circle of nephews, nieces, and other family and friends. Edwin requested a big party be thrown in honor of his death, and one is currently being planned for the spring. In the meantime, his family asks that donations in his memory be made to the Montana Environmental Information Center.