Walter Norris Kirn, Jr.

Friday, June 12, 2020
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Walter Norris Kirn, Jr., 82, of Mcleod, Montana died in his home near the West Boulder River on May 26, 2020 after a battle of several months with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). 

Walter was born on March 24, 1938 in Akron, Ohio, the son of Walter Norris Kirn and Helen (Nye) Kirn. Growing up, he discovered a passion for sports, particularly football and baseball, playing in many youth leagues and on school teams and winning numerous honors for his performances on the field. His rugged, intense, hard-nosed approach to sports guided his choice of favorite positions: catcher in baseball, center in football. While attending Akron’s Buchtel High School, he was scouted by the athletic departments of several Ivy League universities and ultimately chose to attend Princeton University, where he played both varsity football and baseball. As a member of Princeton’s Class of 1960, he studied Chemical Engineering and belonged to Cannon Club, notorious among Princeton’s historic dining clubs for its raucous parties, freewheeling spirit, and lapses into outright mischief. Despite one or two scrapes with the university authorities, he graduated with a Bachelor of Science, Cum Laude. His old college friends remained important to him throughout his life, particularly as its end approached. Their show of love and support during his illness will never be forgotten by his family.

After Princeton, Walter attended Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. There, he took a Masters Degree in Chemical Engineering and met his wife of 30 years, Mildred (Stein) Kirn, a nursing student. They married immediately after graduation and promptly had two sons, Walter Kirn III and Andrew Kirn. In 1962, the young family moved to Fairfax, Virginia, where Walter enrolled in law school at Washington DC’s George Washington University, pursuing his studies at night, working during the day, and, in his final year, clerking for Judge Lindsey Almond on the US Court of Customs and Patent Appeals. Walter’s most vivid memory of this time was of rushing out of his office in disbelief on November 22, 1963 after hearing a radio report that President John. F. Kennedy had been shot. He ran to the nearby headquarters of the Associated Press, and only when he saw the rolls of paper billowing on to the floor from the AP ticker-tape machines, did the tragic reality take hold for him. For the rest of his life he regretted not retrieving one of those fateful ticker tapes as a historical memento. 

Capitalizing on his science background, Walter chose a career in patent law, championing and defending the rights of inventors and innovators. In the late 1960s, he moved from Washington to Minnesota, where he joined the in-house patent department of 3M corporation in St. Paul. He was a fierce litigator, preferring the courtroom to the office. He traveled the world for his job, from Tokyo, Japan to Munich, Germany. Munich was his favorite city in all the world, especially during its annual Oktoberfest, when he was known to shed his lawyerly manners and belt out drinking songs at roaring volume while directing the band with an overflowing beer stein and a cigar clamped firmly in his jaw.

Walter had a powerful lust for life, and his law career consumed but a fraction of his vast energies. From boyhood until his ALS diagnosis in 2019, he fished, hunted, backpacked, canoed, cross country-skied, lifted weights, and played tennis — always to win. In adulthood, his chief concern beside his work and family was the preservation of the natural world. In 1970s Minnesota, he played a key role in the federal designation of the St. Croix River as a National Scenic River. He belonged to several conservation and environmental groups, often offering his legal services pro bono in various battles for clean water, clean air, and the preservation of wild lands and animal habitats. His profound love of the mountain west led him to retire to Montana in the mid-1990s and build a house in rural eastern Park County. Later, he chose to spend his winters in Tucson, Arizona, but he returned to Montana annually in the spring and stayed until his driveway was buried in snow. In his last month of life, having lost the use of much of his body and suffering gravely from the ravages of ALS, he convinced a few adventurous friends to drive to Arizona, pick him up in a RV, and drive him back to his beloved Montana. He lived only two more weeks, but he spent his every waking moment gazing out a window at the landscape he cherished, watching the antics of bears and wild turkeys, scanning the skies for raptors, and peering into the depths of the night sky. 

Walter is survived by his two sons, Walter Kirn III (Amanda Fortini) of Livingston and Andrew Kirn (Ann Tressel Kirn) of St. Paul, Minnesota, and his two grandchildren, Margaret Kirn and Charles Kirn, both of Livingston. He leaves behind a wife of seven months, Barbara (Fitzgerald) Kirn, of Green Valley, Arizona; and a sister, Suzanne Robbins, of Akron, Ohio. His second, older sister, Julian Magoline of Akron, Ohio, preceded him in death by only a few weeks. 

For keeping Walter comfortable in his difficult final days and easing his journey to the next world, his family would like to give its heartfelt thanks to the staff of Livingston Healthcare Hospice. Also indispensable to Walter’s serene transition were his devoted and affectionate home healthcare workers, Glady Farfan Townsend and Miguel Enamorado. They are all angels on earth, truly, and they were Walter’s special angels until his last breath, there at his bedside when he passed over. Walter was not a ceremonious man. He asked that his ashes be mixed with those of his beloved bird dog, Greta, and be spread in the foothills near his home. Those who wish to honor his memory may wish to make a small contribution to the Stafford Animal Shelter, the ALS Foundation, or any worthy organization concerned with the preservation of Montana’s wild lands and waters. 

Walter lived a full, adventurous, and meaningful life, and he said as much many times in the days before he passed. He died bravely, as he lived. As he sat up in bed one morning toward the end, the green springtime mountains spread out before him, he raised his head and looked into the distance. “Let’s go,” he said, nodding slightly, with a faint smile. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go.”

Franzen-Davis Funeral Home and Crematory has been entrusted with arrangements. To view the obituary or share condolences, visit