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Fellow Helenans reflect on the loss of a community pillar
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Fellow Helenans reflect on the loss of a community pillar

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With the passing of longtime Helena pillar and Butte native Joan Duncan, fellow Helenans said the town lost more than just a neighbor.

It lost an advocate, cheerleader, mentor and dear friend.

Duncan died July 31 in her home of diabetes complications. She was 81.

Those who knew Duncan recalled a kindhearted and caring person deeply engaged in her community.

"Joan's efforts really did help produce long-term benefits for Helena," said former Rocky Mountain Development Council Director Gene Leuwer, a colleague of Duncan's. "She spent her last years watching the younger generations do the same thing. And she was proud of it."

Duncan worked for Rocky Mountain Development Council, spearheading a number of its programs, including its foster grandparents program. She was one of the first directors of Helena Food Share. She served as a Helena City Commissioner. Under Gov. Tom Judge she became the first woman to head up the newly formed Montana State Women’s Bureau.

Politics were especially important to her.

Former Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney said Duncan was "the first one to show up to the office when things needed to get done back in the days of licking envelopes."

"She always had that fire in her belly to affect positive change," Cooney said. "She was constantly working to make a difference anyway she could. She never lost that fire."

Although their political careers did not overlap, former Helena Mayor Jim Smith remembers her well. Duncan was the assistant Dean of Women at Carroll College when Smith arrived as a student in the fall of 1966.

"She was the gatekeeper at Guadalupe Hall (the girls dormitory). You wanted to be respectful and well dressed if you planned to meet with one of the girls," Smith said with a chuckle. "She was protective of the girls and took her role seriously as a mentor and a guide to them. ... She was a substitute mother for the whole dormitory and somehow after that took the whole town under her wing."

Smith referred to Duncan as one of Helena's matriarchs.

Though her time on the Helena City Commission ended shortly before Smith became mayor, he said she remained engaged.

"I'd hear from her frequently," Smith said. "She gave me a lot of good feedback."

Cooney said he and Duncan were close friends for many years and that one of the things they initially bonded over was their shared Butte roots.

"She was fiercely Butte," he said.

Smith said he regularly recognized the Butte values in Duncan.

"She was more of a giver than a receiver," he said. "I think that had a lot to do with her Butte upbringing."

Born Sep. 8, 1939, to Dr. Walter E. and Alcye Marjorie Duncan in Butte, she grew up with her brother, Walter, with an appreciation for community service.

"Even as a child Joan would want to help everyone, be kind and assist others to find a better way," former Executive Director of the Florence Crittenton Home and friend Pat Seiler wrote in Duncan's obituary.

Seiler later referred to Duncan, a Black woman, as a "trailblazer" who helped carve a path for women and minorities.

Duncan worked with Head Start, a statewide nonprofit focused on schoolchildren, before taking on her role with Rocky Mountain Development Council.

"She transitioned from Head Start to the Foster Grandparents program. She had us all covered," Seiler said. "She truly is an inspiration. I hope everyone will be inspired to do a little more to help those less fortunate."

It was Duncan's Catholic faith that not only brought her to Helena and Carroll College but also informed her outlook on life and community.

Duncan seemed an ever-present figure in Helena, regularly spotted at mass, the Helena Civic Center, political candidate forums and fundraising events.

"She really was connected to just about all of Helena in those years," Leuwer said. "Joan knew everybody in town and had a connection to a lot of important endeavors."

Every person interviewed said she will certainly be missed not only for her warmness but also her positive influence on the Queen City.

"A person from a kinder, gentler time has left the community," Smith said. "She came from a simpler era and saw things with a little more clarity than we do these days."

A rosary will be recited at 6 p.m. Monday at Anderson Stevenson Wilke Funeral Home. A funeral mass is set for noon Tuesday at the Cathedral of St. Helena, followed by a reception in the Social Hall of Anderson Stevenson Wilke Funeral Home. Burial will be held in Anaconda.

Donations in her name will be accepted by the American Diabetes Association, the Helena Food Share, or a charity of one’s choice.

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Local Government and Crime Reporter

Nolan Lister is a reporter at the Helena Independent Record with an emphasis on local government and crime.

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