Mary Antoinette “Toni” Cella Erkkila died suddenly in Polson, Montana on August 18, 2021. Toni was born on July 11, 1936, the second of three children of Col. Joseph A and Mary Cella (neé Beck) in Corvallis, Oregon. Col. Cella’s US Army career took his family to postings around the American West before settling in Albuquerque, NM in 1943. There, Toni attended Monte Vista Elementary, Jefferson Junior High School, and Highland High School, and earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from the University of New Mexico in Spanish, with a minor in government. She was confirmed at and remained a member of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Albuquerque for the rest of her life.
After graduate school, Toni spent five years living in New York City, where she worked as a municipal bonds analyst at the Wall Street firm White Weld. Upon recovering from a health crisis, she realized the world was large and life was short, so she saved a half year’s-worth of salary, resigned her job, and began a six-month solo tour around the world, visiting countries in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, as well as India, Japan, and Southeast Asia. The professional-quality photographs she took with her Yashica Electro 35 and the stories she regaled friends and family with for decades after are treasures her survivors are grateful to have as mementos of her adventurous spirit.
She returned to Albuquerque after her travels and met John Erkkila, an Air Force officer stationed at Kirtland AFB, through mutual friends. John and Toni married in 1968, and Toni returned to the peripatetic life of a military family. Her only child, Kathryn Elizabeth (“Kitty”) was born during their time in Alexandria, VA. Postings to northern California, Albuquerque, and Dayton, OH followed, before John retired from the Air Force and moved back to Albuquerque to work for a private defense contractor. Albuquerque was her primary residence from that time until the end of her life. John’s retirement from his second career afforded them more time to enjoy his childhood home in Polson, MT, where they spent most summers and autumns in their later years.
To know Toni was to know her passion for music. Toni fell in love with the piano at age three, insisting on lessons just like her 7-year-old sister, Isabel, was getting. After much effort to find a teacher willing to take on a piano pupil so young, Toni’s lifelong piano studies began. Following years of regret about not having pursued a music degree her first time around in college, Toni earned a bachelor’s in music with a major in piano performance from Wright State University in Dayton, OH. Everywhere she went, she shared joyful moments playing with musical friends, including her brother, Bill, and she lent her talents as a piano accompanist with many UNM music students. She was a frequent guest pianist at St. Paul Lutheran Church and Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Polson, MT.
Toni also craved knowledge. A lifelong scholar, her favorite place in the house besides the piano bench was any chair near a bookshelf. Never in need of technology to aid her, the details gleaned from her extensive reading were catalogued to the volume or journal issue in her brain, and whatever topic that arose, be it politics, history, literature, philosophy, or economics, Toni could immediately unearth her copy of a relevant text, riddled with her own notes and marginalia, to demonstrate her point. Anyone who spent time with Toni, or who received one of her beautifully-written letters, could attest to the power of her memory and the compassion of her heart.
Finally, Toni delighted in her family. She encouraged her daughter and her grandchildren to be confident, compassionate, and curious. She laughed long and hard at any and all attempts at humor, and her infectious laugh won her many friends and warmed many hearts. No one made her laugh more than her dear husband, John, to whom she was married for 53 years.
Toni leaves behind her husband, John Erkkila, of Albuquerque, NM; daughter, Kitty (Patrick) Cahalan, of Pasadena, CA; grandchildren, Jack and Isaiah Cahalan; brother, Bill (Nancy) Cella of Jemez Springs, NM; brother-in-law Ron Hahn, of NYC; niece Carolyn Hahn Imhoff (Scott) of NYC, and nephews Harold Hahn of Kingston, NY and David Hahn of Taos, NM, and many other friends and relatives. She was preceded in death by her father, Joseph Cella; her mother, Mary Beck Cella; and her sister, Isabel Cella Hahn.
Services, which will be held in Albuquerque, are pending.