John Phillips Varnum, 86, passed away Monday, July 1st, 2019 in his home,
surrounded by his loving family, after a long-fought battle with cancer.
John was born on June 23rd, 1933 to Frederick and Genevieve Varnum, in
Fort Belknap. He was the 6th of 7 children. At the age of 6, his father was
transferred by the BIA to Ronan, where John attended school through his
sophomore year. The family was then transferred back to Fort Belknap,
where he graduated from Harlem High School in 1951. It was here that he
met his wife, Alice Nelson.
After graduation, John joined the USAF, and was stationed in Louisiana
and Goose Bay, Labrador. During this period, John and Alice Nelson were
married on August 9th, 1953, in Harlem, and Alice accompanied him to
Louisiana before he was transferred to Goose Bay. His first daughter,
Vicki, was born while he was stationed at Goose Bay, and this now larger
family moved with him when he was transferred to Tacoma, WA where he
was honorably discharged in 1956.
John attended the University of Montana, and graduated with his Master’s
Degree in Music Performance in 1959. John was principally a clarinetist,
but also played flute, saxophone and piano.
His second daughter, Barbara was born during this time.
The growing family then moved to Helena, where he was the music teacher
for Helena Public Schools and directed the Helena Symphony Orchestra.
He also drove the tour train in Helena during the summer, and his children
have fond memories of riding with him (FOR FREE!). Here Elizabeth was
born, and their family was complete.
In 1963 the family moved to Havre, where John was an associate professor
of Music, and later (1970) became chairman of the music department at
Northern Montana College.
In 1965, on a lark, John applied for Teacher’s Education in East Africa
(TEEA), sponsored by Aid For International Development. To his surprise
he was hired and the family moved to Kisii, Kenya in 1967. Alice was hired
by the Kenyan government to teach in the same college, and together they
visited small mudhut schools to observe and assist student teachers in
When not teaching, they toured Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda in a small
VW bug. John had outfitted the VW with a homemade supply box which
perched on top of the VW, and which held all camping gear, food and
everything one needs for a family of five, while tooling around the outback
of Africa. The family has memories of lions roaring and hyenas laughing
while snuggled in their tent. He was fearless! These were very happy and
memorable years for the entire family, and sparked the love of travel in his
Before returning to Montana, they purchased a larger tent, a bigger VW
and camped throughout Europe for two months, and then sailed to New
York City aboard the SS United States.
John recorded Kuria and Gusii traditional music, as well as collected
traditional african musical instruments. The music he recorded was
eventually made into an album for the Library of Congress/Smithsonian,
Folkway collection, so that these musical traditions would not be lost. John
donated several African instruments to the Chicago Museum of Natural
The family returned to Havre in 1969, where John resumed his work at
NMC. He retired in 1986. John and Alice moved to Polson, MT and built
their dream home overlooking Flathead Lake. John worked for five-years
at Salish Kootenai College as a grant writer.
After retirement, John and Alice spend the next 30 years as traveling “snow
birds” as well as traveling throughout the country and the world. The entire
family traveled to Thailand to celebrate John and Alice’s 50th anniversary,
and Portugal for their 60th. Traveling was John’s passion.
John was a gentle soul, with a wicked sense of humor. He was an avid
reader, an incredibly talented musician, an intellectual, and a Mr. Fix It. His
hobby after retirement was woodworking, and he became a self-taught
accomplished woodworker, making many beautiful wood products for his
family, including all of his grandchildren, which are cherished by them to
this day. His family meant everything to him, and he was everything to his
John is survived by his wife Alice; daughters Vicki (Carl Godtland) of Darby
and Victor, Idaho and Barbara Varnum of Polson; grandchildren Nathan
Johnson, Katie (Ryan) Leahy, Yarrow (Mike) Schmidt, Michelle Lloyd;
great-grandchildren Tristan, Arabelle, Brayden, Katia, Keely, and Chance;
brothers Cyrus (Jean), Charles (Shirley), Walter, and baby sister
Genevieve (Frank) Clement.
He was preceded in death by his older brothers Richard and Howard.
The family suffered the loss of beloved daughter Elizabeth in 2015.
A celebration of life will be held on July 13th at 1:00 at the Journey Be
Church in Polson, MT (101 7th Ave W).
In lieu of flowers, please consider donating to the Hospice Program
(Partners In Home Care, 1-14th Ave W, Polson, MT 59860).