George Ritter, 74, passed away Friday evening, Aug. 25, 2006, in Billings. He is survived by his two sons, John Ritter of Belmont, Calif., and Christopher Ritter (beloved father-in-law to Allison) of New York City; his brother, William Ritter of Boise, Idaho; and his nieces, Susan, Linda and Laurie.
George F. Ritter was born on June 7, 1932, in Daly City, Calif. His father, George Sr., was a Hussar horse soldier who had immigrated from Hungary in 1904 while his mother Amelia had grown up on a farm near Bazine, Kan. His parents met when his father placed an advertisement looking for a waitress. She got the job and three years later, a baby boy. Within two weeks of “Junior’s” birth, George was already living a life on the road-in tow with his parents as they traveled from fairground to fairground working their independent food concession. Along one of their many stops, in the summer of 1936, George had one of his earliest memories-the captivating sight of the Rimrocks outside of the Yellowstone County fairgrounds.
Primarily though, George grew up in a cramped city adjacent to San Francisco, a place that made him long for wide open spaces. Finding some of them helped make him the star running back on his high school football team. Though a few years younger, future NFL coaches John Madden and John Robinson, were also part of the same football program at Jefferson High School.
After graduating in 1950, George eventually joined the Navy and spent time stationed in San Diego, Memphis, Tenn., and Norman, Okla. Supporting the Korean conflict from stateside, he worked as a steel fabricator. Later that decade, he attended San Francisco State University to study business while simultaneously serving in the Navy reserve on Treasure Island. In his spare time, he enjoyed cars, fishing, hunting, skiing and attending Bay Area sporting events- where he saw the likes of Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis, Y.A. Tittle, Lou Thesz and Willie Mays. His many friends included his brother, Bill Ritter, now of Boise, and Les Nicolini, now of Petaluma, Calif.
While working sales for an office supply company, by chance, he ran into an old football coach who convinced him to give suburban real estate sales a try. Despite some very lean times, George sagely and aggressively became a top seller and ended up owning a few pieces of property himself. His many friends during this time included Dwight Storey of Fresno, Calif., and George and Judy Spanek of Burlingame, Calif.
In 1963, he saw a beautiful young woman named Giuliana walk into the coffee shop next to his office. To get her attention, he played the same Nat King Cole song on the jukebox that he knew she was fond of playing. A sweet courtship ensued for a few months. Around the same time, George was presented him with a unique opportunity. A boxing manager wanted him to escort a promising fighter to Hawaii for an upcoming match and to train him. With a free trip to Hawaii on the horizon, George proposed to his girlfriend “Julie” and off they went on this business trip/honeymoon.
By 1967, things had changed drastically in his life. He had quit selling real estate and had moved across California from the Bay Area to South Lake Tahoe. The couple also had two young sons they were very proud of, John Kurt and Christopher Edward. But the marriage was over.
Temporarily, George took employment at San Francisco Airport filling planes with fuel. This job allowed him to secure a 30 day pass to fly for free anywhere on the United grid. Hong Kong, Cairo, Paris and Switzerland were among his many stops. When he returned to San Francisco after literally circling the globe, he knew he knew he could no longer stand the congestion and lifestyle of California any longer. He loaded up and headed East – ironically to get to the Old West. For six months, he lived out of a camper and hunted and fished to his hearts content….all the while slowly deciding which Montana city he would put stakes down in. Billings became his choice. After a brief stint owning a camera store (and working as a wedding photographer), he spent the better part of the 1970s selling cars in the Billings area, but that occupation was in the far background of his true life as an outdoorsman.
In 1973, his two sons became old enough to spend summers away from home and George, replicating what his own father had done for him, he took his children all over the region. His children were exposed to all sorts of wonderful activities, wildlife and locales; The Black Hills, Yellowstone Park, Glacier Park, Cobb Field, and the 1974 World’s Fair in Spokane were but some of the escapades that the three of them shared. His many Billings friends during this time included Bill Lloyd, Al Bishop, Gary LaRue, Lloyd Peterson, Jimmy Thompson and Pat Dahl.
In 1977, George received a job offer from an old friend and moved to a small ferry town on Puget Sound in Washington State. But after two years, he wasn’t as comfortable there as he had been in Big Sky Country. But instead of following his instincts and moving back, he gave Reno, Nevada a shot-but that didn’t pan out either. So, in 1981, he moved back to this city on the banks of the Yellowstone River. Like Charlie Russell, though he wasn’t born in Montana, he was like a native son.
Over the next 25 years, the Colton Arms Apartments on 24th Street West was his base camp. Many fellow residents saw him as a protector of the property. He enjoyed the company of his many friends there including Monty, Debbie, John and Steven.
George was a member of the Billings Gun and Rod Club. He helped manage Al Bishop’s various campaigns for office and he even drove a route for the MET for a few years (always preferring the routes with the least amount of traffic and with the best scenery). Although not active, he was proudly a member of the free and accepted Masons of California: Crocker Lodge #212.
He enjoyed floating the Smith River on many occasions and took fishing expeditions to locations as exotic as Argentina, Alaska and Mexico. He also visited 13 countries in Europe in 1994 and made many trips to visit his children whether it was in Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe or back in the Bay Area. In 2004, he embarked on an ambitious tour of the East Coast with his son Chris in which he saw New York City, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Cooperstown, Gettysburg and Niagara Falls. On one of these days, though 72 years of age, he even managed to walk in excess of six miles causing his son to wonder if his old man had more stamina then he himself had.
Late last year, he had planned on meeting his sons for a trip through New Mexico but this past December, he sought medical attention for pain. In January, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was treated aggressively with radiation and chemotherapy.
The trip was amended to a five-day stay in Jackson Hole this past March, where the three enjoyed one last visit together. Another great visit happened when he and his brother Bill made a journey down to Thermopolis. All in all, George, often with his good friend Bob Hardgrove and/or his son Christopher by his side, traveled in excess of 2,000 miles this past year seeing the beautiful sights of Montana one last time. Other dear friends of George include Jeanie Peterson, Scott and Julie Peterson, Dick Hamm, Bobby Bellmore and Daniel Kilbride.
George remained very active through the beginning of August and continued to visit his many friends at the physical therapy gym at St. Vincent’s, nearly every weekday morning. He will be missed and remembered by many.
A myspace account has been set up in tribute complete with a slide video of many of his favorite photographs and can be viewed by linking to: http://www.myspace.com/104528337.
In lieu of a funeral, a remembrance with coffee and cookies will be held at 11 a.m. Monday, Aug. 28, at Michelotti-Sawyers Mortuary, located at 1001 Alderson Drive. Friends are encouraged to attend and to share pictures and memories of their dear friend George.