Rev. Robert I. Phelps died Aug. 24, 2018, in Billings, having just celebrated his 84th birthday and 61 years of marriage. Robert Irving Phelps was born July 31, 1934, in Kodaikanal, India, to Carl Wright and Mary Moulton Phelps, and was raised in the mountains of south India with two older siblings, sister Ginny and brother Roger. He completed high school at Kodaikanal School, which was at the time an ecumenically-run American Christian boarding school designed to educate the children of American missionaries serving in India and of which his father was principle. It was here that he first cultivated his love for Indian food, which he continually sought after even a world away in Montana. In 1955, Bob graduated Summa Cum Laude from Elon College in North Carolina with a degree in history, and he later completed his graduate studies at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas Texas, earning Bachelor of Divinity and Master of Sacred Theology degrees. He was ordained in the Methodist Church in 1959.
Bob met Alita Logan in 1956 while working for the National Council of Churches’ National Parks ministry in Yellowstone Park, and they married the next summer in Wichita Falls, Texas, on July 13, 1957. In 1961, after two years serving in the north Texas Conference, they moved to Montana, where they served in the Yellowstone Conference until his formal retirement in the summer of 2000. His ministerial appointments included Plains/Paradise, Big Sandy, Covenant/East Helena, Bozeman, Great Falls First, Missoula District Superintendent, Missoula First, and Polson churches. Bob and Alita raised two children, Charissa and Joel, and were blessed with two grandchildren, Melissa and Steffan, and two great-grandchildren, Nevaeh and Lillie.
Bob loved the mountains. Hiking the trails of Glacier Park brought him great joy, and his impulse to explore led him on many cherished adventures with Alita to the Middle East, Europe, Central America and the Caribbean. He was a gifted vocalist and pianist who delighted in the magic and mystery of music, and offered his song gratefully and reverently whenever the opportunity arose. He was a dedicated, perpetually curious scholar, devoted to reading and writing and the transformative power of ideas. He was truly a pioneer, a progressive theologian deeply passionate about social justice and inclusiveness, unafraid to speak truth to power in all its forms and tireless in his efforts to make the presence and power of Spirit available unconditionally to all, as full deserving citizens of God’s world. Gentle prophet, teacher, counsellor, companion, husband, father, with a keen eye for beauty, and a beauty to the eye, you will be deeply, enormously missed.
Bob is survived by his treasured wife, Alita; his son, Joel (Ann); his grandchildren, Melissa and Steffan; his great-grandchildren, Nevaeh and Lillie; his brother, Roger (Lyn); and several nieces and nephews.
A memorial service will be at 11 a.m. Friday, Aug. 31, at Hope United Methodist Church, 244 Wicks Lane, Billings, with a reception following, to which all are invited.
The Wheatley Lectures Series in collaboration with Rocky Mountain College has been chosen for memorial gifts offered in Bob’s memory: Rocky Mountain College 1511 Poly Drive Billings, MT 59102.