Donald Ray Byers, 80, founding Executive Director of the Montana Special Olympics, passed away April 29 of natural causes at his home in Bozeman. He was the son of Joseph Toole and Syble Clara Byers, born on December 8, 1936, in Helena. A fourth-generation Montanan, his ancestors arrived at Fort Benton via steamboat in 1865 before homesteading in the Boulder Valley.
After graduation from Jefferson County High School (Boulder) in 1954, he earned a B.S. Degree in Physical Education from Montana State College (now Montana State University). It was during that time that he served as student manager for Bobcat basketball, baseball and football. In that capacity, he made lasting friendships that endured over several decades and led to a life-long affection for his alma mater and MSU athletics.
During his school years, he worked summers as the district clerk/dispatcher for the U.S. Forest Service in Boulder. After finishing his MSU education he was drafted into the US Army eventually serving a year in Korea. After his discharge, he attended Officer’s Candidate School with the Montana National Guard, then transferred to the Air National Guard based in Great Falls, retiring 25 years later with the rank of Lt. Colonel. Early in his career, he served as Director of Recreation at the Boulder River Training School for five years.
In 1967, he married Lila Devaney in Helena, and then earned a Master’s degree in Special Education from Eastern Montana College, and accepted a position as Assistant Director of Special Education in Great Falls. In 1968, he became the father of a daughter, Sloan; followed two years later by a son, Brett. The couple later divorced.
Over 47 years in Great Falls, Don was deeply involved in community affairs. In addition to his service with the Air Guard and the Special Olympics, he was the first head coach of the Great Falls High School girls basketball team; officiated high school football and basketball for 37 years; and served as president of the Lions Service Club. He led the Special Olympics during a 20-year period when it grew from a single track meet with 125 competitors, to a state-wide, three-day celebration featuring a dozen events and more than 1,000 entries. He also led the effort to expand the program to include basketball and winter games.
In the late 1990s, he began a new career, selling cars at Bison Ford in Great Falls and in typical overachieving fashion, was named “Salesman of the Month” so many times that light-hearted consideration was given to renaming the award in his name.
In 2003, he married Marcia Pendergast Petersen, whom he had known as a classmate during their elementary and high school days in Boulder. The couple spent much of their retirement traveling the Western U.S. and watching his beloved Bobcats. In 2015, they relocated to Bozeman.
Don is survived by his loving wife, Marcia; his daughter, Sloan Fuller; his son, Brett; seven stepchildren; and a niece, Rebecca (Jeff) Price.
He was preceded in death by his parents; sister, Neoma (Dan) Rieder; and stepson, Steve Peterson.
In his 80 years, Don experienced uncommon success in his work; made hundreds, if not thousands of friends including dozens of leaders from the worlds of politics, entertainment and athletics; and traveled to four different continents. He also endured great tragedy but through it all, maintained an optimistic view of life, a strong sense of family and extreme loyalty to those people and organizations that he encountered.
The Rosary, followed by the Vigil service, will be held Friday, May 5th, 2017 at 7:00 p.m. at Resurrection University Catholic Parish. A Funeral Mass will be held Saturday, May 6, 2017 at 12:00 p.m. at St. Catherine Catholic Church in Boulder, MT. A potluck reception is to follow the Funeral Mass. If friends desire, they may send memorials gifts in Don’s name to Montana Special Olympics, 710 First Avenue North in Great Falls; to Hospice of Bozeman, 3810 Valley Commons Drive, Bozeman, 59718; or to the charity of one’s choice. Condolences and memories may be shared with Don’s family at www.dahlcares.com.