Donna Jean (Essex) Small

April 10, 1934 ~ August 15, 2021 (age 87)


Donna Jean Small (Essex), age 87, formerly of Helena, passed away August 15 at the Tender Nest assisted living facility in Billings, Montana.  She was preceded in death by her parents, W. E. “Earl” Essex and Gladys Essex, her brother, Earl Essex, her former husband Darrell Small, and his parents Pauline and Roscoe Small. She is survived by her brother Don Essex of Arizona and Alaska, three children, Dennis Small (Terri Hamilton), Helena, Donell Small (Leslie Small), Billings, and Deanna Small, of Great Falls.  She had 9 grandchildren, Alex Small, Logan Small, Daren Small, Alyssa Small, Wes Petroff, Kymberly Petroff, Cabe Petroff, Taryn Brody, and Shane Brody, and 10 great-grandchildren, Rhiver, Christian, Jade, Serenity, Aayden, Zayben, Noah, Alarik, Lily, and Olivia, Ayden Jolie with Seraphina on the way.

Donna Jean was born and raised in Bellingham, Washington where she loved music, playing piano and trumpet for the Red Raiders Marching Band, and performing in choir. She excelled in athletics, particularly swimming and basketball, and academics, graduating as the salutatorian of her class. She was offered a swimming scholarship at Seattle University, but was unable to attend. She graduated from the Nurses College in Everett, Washington with a nursing certificate, passed her Washington State Board in 1955 and later earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Eastern Montana College and Montana State University. She married Darrell Small in 1956 and their 3 children were born in Washington prior to moving to Billings, Montana in 1967.

In Billings, she worked at both St. Vincent and Deaconess Hospitals and began her 30 year career at the Mountain Pacific Health Foundation.  She moved to Helena, Montana in 1987 when her job relocated.  At the age of 76, restructuring of her job put her on unemployment for the first time in her life – she felt sheepishly guilty about receiving benefits - and she later decided to formerly retire.  She dabbled with some medical contracting and also worked as a food server for the first time in her life in her late 70s, driving to Wolf Creek, Montana at Alva Lee’s Baking where she received cash tips! This delighted her and she enjoyed the job very much for the time she was there.

Shortly after first moving to Billings, she became involved in Democratic politics which became a huge passion for her.  She worked on many campaigns and for several years, provided large meals for regular meetings of the Yellowstone Democratic Club. She began to work on other issues, especially nursing, spending several years as an unpaid lobbyist for nurses, and was on the State Board of Nursing for 10 years. She was recruited to run for vice chair of the Montana Democratic Party where she served with Chair Bruce Nelson for 6 years, then as Chair herself for 2. She served on the Democratic National Committee for several years, attended several national conventions, and traveled extensively. During her tenure, the Party became much more proficient in fundraising and candidate recruitment and she helped create updated policies, procedures, and manuals for the organization.  Her files were full of thank you letters from candidates and campaigns from local races all the way to presidential candidates like Ed Muskie and George McGovern. She continued to do volunteer work for the Party well into her 80s. For a brief period, she temped as Governor Schweitzer’s front desk person. She found it hilarious how nonplussed people were when they saw her in the governor’s office.

Donna Jean loved and enjoyed her family, helped raise several grandchildren and provided much assistance, including sharing living space with several. She always said that she did not know her grandparents, so she made sure she spent special time with her grandchildren so they would know each other. She umpired, kept score, and traveled to see her children and others perform and compete. She was a coach, Den Mother, did Blue Birds, Boy Scouts, and bought Girl Scout cookies. She drove the AlCan Highway when it was 1100 miles of gravel road. She loved watching and attending sporting events, especially football. She loved the outdoors, went camping, fishing, and hiking with family and friends, and was up for any challenge, riding an elephant in Thailand and a camel in Egypt in her 70s. She loved gardening, especially flowers, and lovingly tended large flowerbeds at her homes in Billings, Helena, and even some beds at Tender Nest.

She enjoyed travel, and between her job, political life, and passion for new experiences, she was able to visit every US State, and travel around the world to such places as Taiwan where she was toasted by generals, Hong Kong, where she bought her “Rolex”, Germany where she learned about “breakfast beer”, the Czech Republic and Tunisia (a cheap trip from Germany), Scotland with family, several Caribbean destinations, Israel several times, and Peru, where she climbed to 7,900 foot Machu Picchu in her 70s. The total list of destinations is much, much longer.

She was a member of the First Presbyterian Church of Helena and sang in the choir for several years.  Through the Church, she became involved with Wheelchair Angels, a charity that provided wheelchairs to disabled Palestinian children. She would help raise money, and travel to Israel to assist with logistics and the fitting of the chairs. She would tear up talking about 11 year olds who had never walked, only crawled or been carried all their lives suddenly having independence. This brought great joy and meaning to her life and she did all she could to further that mission.

She was independent, but eager to work with others, and she was also sensitive and caring to those around her. She was never one who wanted credit, always deferring to others when she received a compliment. She was always sympathetic to the plight of others, which led to years of work volunteering, fundraising, knitting and sewing for various charities, and several trips to Israel and Palestine.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in her memory to Wheelchair Angels International, PO Box 79 Highwood, MT  59450, USA, or +1-866-707-2690.

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