On March 31, 2018, the world lost a wonderfully humble and amazing man. Ron Burnam was a loving husband, tender father, friend and doctor whose generous, loving heart stopped much too soon. Born to Lon Stiver and Nina Louise Burnam on Feb. 23, 1943, in Tucson, AZ, he was the oldest of four kids. He was raised in the small mining town of Hayden, AZ. Young Ron always dreamt of becoming a doctor and persevered even when the townsfolk doubted. He worked hard every summer at the Shell Gas Station in order to have enough money to go to college.
After graduating high school, he studied pre-med at the University of Arizona in Tucson. In his second year, he met nursing student, Judy Nicholas, at a dance in Phoenix. With Ron in Tucson and Judy in Phoenix, they didn’t get to date often, but with his infectious smile, chivalrous and easy manner and fun, irreverent sense of humor, he quickly won her heart.
Ron began medical school at the University of Utah in 1964. He married the love of his life, Judy, in August of 1965, and set up housekeeping in the “lambing sheds” (WWII barracks turned married student housing). Money was tight, so Judy began work as a new RN at the U of U, and Ron joined the U.S. Army to help with expenses. Before leaving Utah, the couple welcomed their first child, Angela Gay, in December of 1967.
Upon graduating, Ron moved his small family to San Francisco, where he began his internship, then residency in Internal Medicine at Letterman General Army Hospital on the Presidio. Here, he gained valuable experience treating soldiers returning from Vietnam. The years on the Presidio found the couple blessed with three more children, Heather Louise, Tiffany Marie and Nicholas Stiver. Juggling a young family and busy schedule, Ron realized time with family would need to be a priority, so bought a small motor home. This began a lifelong love of camping and family trips.
Finally able to afford a home, the family moved to Lucas Valley in Marin County in 1974. Ron completed his Pulmonary Fellowship and made the decision to retire from the Army. The family moved to Montana, where he went into private practice and started the Respiratory Center. As the practice grew, he was joined by associates Thomas Thigpen, Fred Kahn and Jim McMeekin. Judy also came onboard as the office RN. Ron treated his patients with respect and gentle care, and always took extra time to listen to their concerns. He especially admired his rancher patients for their tenacity, work ethic and perseverance, impressed by the hard life many of them endured. (When not dreaming of becoming a doctor, Little Ronny dreamt of being a cowboy, having enjoyed many summers helping on his granddaddy’s ranch in Colorado.)
In the late ’80s, the world seemed to be enjoying a quiet period, so Ron decided to join the Army Reserves to complete his 20 years of service. Though this seemed a good decision at the time, he was ordered to Saudi Arabia in 1990 with the outbreak of the Gulf War. Upon returning he said, “I thought I had signed up for the retirement plan, not the travel plan!” Lt. Col. Ron Burnam retired from the service several years later.
In 2008, Ron retired from private practice, but seeing the long “honey-do” list, went back to work at the Advanced Care Hospital as Director of Respiratory Services in 2009. He fully retired in 2015.
Ron loved generously and actively. He loved his wife, sharing work and home with her. He so loved his kids and was proud of them and the families created. Celebrating their milestones and successes and the time shared with grandkids gave more light and sparkle to his eyes.
He loved Montana. It provided the Burnam family with many years of fun-filled activities: All enjoyed skiing and hiking, but, more than anything, camping — or in more recent years, glamping. For the Burnams, camping was always an adventure, often arriving at the campground late at night and with something broken in the trailer. Nick-named “Mr. Gadget” by family and friends, Ron was never without the proper tools in his cargo pants and would set about rebuilding, even if it was midnight. He was creative and handy.
Ron bought many campers through the years; the last was a 5th wheel trailer that they drove through many states and all over Montana. It got to be a joke that Ron and Judy usually celebrated their anniversaries on a camping trip as they did last August, celebrating their 52nd at Woodbine campground. In addition to camping and fishing, Ron and Judy enjoyed distance running, riding bikes and cross-country skiing for many years with the Yellowstone Rim Runners.
He loved serving others. In 2013 and 2015, Ron and Judy traveled to Tanzania, Africa, with Judy’s sister, Jeanne, and brother-in-law, Denny, and a missionary health team from Florence. Though busy and tiring, he thoroughly enjoyed these experiences and the opportunity to care for people in such dire need.
Ron epitomized “Love thy neighbor” and put it into practice as committee member and then Moderator of First Congregational Church.
He loved music, joining Judy in singing in the church choir and later the Billings Symphony Chorale. He enjoyed the music created, the camaraderie and the opportunity to wear bow ties.
He loved his dog, Kibeau, training and walking her regularly. Their walks took longer than anticipated as he always took time to visit with others along the way; he loved connecting.
Whether in bow ties or cargo pants, Ron was a loving family man, friend and physician. That’s who he was and will be so very missed.
Ron was predeceased by his brother, Jerry. He is survived by his wife, Judy; their four children, Angie (Chris), Heather (Joe), Tiffany (Edgar) and Nick (Jolene); nine grandchildren, Ryan, Ashley, Thomas, Jackson, Kayla, Parker, Neal, Annalise and Ronin; and sisters, Lynette and Cathy (Jeff).
The celebration of Ron’s life will be at 11 a.m. Saturday, April 14, at First Congregational Church, 310 N. 27th St., with reception to follow.
In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation to First Congregational Church, Billings Symphony Chorale or the charity of your choice.