A good doctor, a great and kind man, is gone. Dr. H. C. “Pete” Habein, Jr. died on Dec. 4, 2017. He was 94 years old.
Born on Aug. 18, 1923, in Minneapolis, and raised in Rochester, Minnesota, the son of Dr. H. C. Habein and Margaret Schmitt Habein, he wanted to be a doctor from his earliest memory. He grew up surrounded by doctors. His heroes were all doctors. His grandfather practiced in Minneapolis, and his father practiced at the Mayo Clinic. Medicine was his passion, his vocation and his avocation.
After graduation from The Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, he enrolled at Dartmouth College, a member of the class of 1945, and completed college and two years of medical school at Dartmouth while in the army on an accelerated curriculum. He finished medical school at the University of Minnesota.
In the middle of his fellowship in thoracic and cardiovascular surgery at the Mayo Clinic, he was recalled to active duty. Commissioned captain in the air force, he shipped to the air force hospital in Wiesbaden, West Germany, where he met and fell in love with a beautiful nurse lieutenant, Jeanne MacGillivray. She would know he had arrived to pick her up for a date when she heard him playing “Tea for Two” on the piano in the lobby of the nurses’ quarters. They were married in Wiesbaden on Nov. 12, 1955, and celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary. Their love and life together is the portrait of enduring romance.
After completing his surgical fellowship, he and Jeanne moved their growing family to Billings in 1958, where he joined the busy surgical practice of doctors Benson and Marchello. He would practice there for the next 30 years. During much of his practice, he operated and made rounds at both St. Vincent Hospital and the Deaconess Hospital (now Billings Clinic Hospital), and he enjoyed long friendships and professional associations with doctors throughout Montana and around the country. He made rounds in the morning before his sons awakened and rarely returned home in time for dinner; the table was cleared, leaving his place set and a plate of leftovers warming in the oven. At a time before emergency room physicians, he took his turn on call for the emergency room. On countless nights, phone calls from the ER awakened him in the wee hours, and always he put on a suit and tie by the closet light before driving to the hospital. He was a governor of the American College of Surgeons, a member of the Western Surgical Association, the Southwestern Surgical Congress, American College of Chest Physicians, the American Trauma Society, and the Priestly Society of the Mayo Alumni Association. He helped lead a statewide initiative to improve trauma care in Montana. He served on the ski patrol and gave advanced trauma training to patrollers. He authored more than a dozen papers, addressing various problems in thoracic and cardiovascular surgery, published in the AMA Archives of Surgery, the Journal of Thoracic Surgery and the Rocky Mountain Medical Journal, among others.
He deeply loved the outdoors, the mountains and streams and fields of Montana. He imbued his three sons with his passion for skiing, hiking, backpacking, fly fishing, and hunting, quizzing them on the names of rivers and mountains while the car veered across the center line because he had spotted a Western Meadowlark on a fencepost. He was a superb shot, a tireless fly fisherman, a graceful skier. He believed strongly in conservation and long supported the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, and the Sierra Club. And he loved his hunting dogs. Thatcher, Tigger, Hank, Meg, Pip, and Tar in succession accompanied him hunting and hiking. He was a master gardener, meticulously planting and cultivating trees, shrubs, flowers, vegetables, experimenting with natural pest control by importing lady bugs and praying mantises, installing his own pump irrigation system in the age of black pipe and brass heads. And he loved music, classical and jazz, but especially jazz and particularly Benny Goodman and Ella Fitzgerald. He built his own stereo from a Heathkit and liked to play it loud. An omnivorous reader, he stayed current with his favorite medical journals, indulged his particular affinity for Hemingway, and devoured the latest works of biography and history. Poetry confused him. Raised Episcopalian, he converted to Catholicism and embraced his faith. He had his heroes: his own father, his surgical mentors, Teddy Roosevelt, and Charles Lindbergh. It pained him to acknowledge their weaknesses.
A profound humility veiled the pride he took in his work and in whatever he set his mind to. On rare occasions, his perfectionism evoked his German temper. “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” He trusted people, at times naively. Honest, strong and resolute, with an iron endurance, he brooked no whining. But he was quick to put his little boys on his back, to warm his sons’ hands on the ski hill, to climb back up the slope to retrieve their equipment, or to untangle an errant tippet on the river. His love was tangible.
Before retiring from medicine, he fulfilled a personal commitment to join the staff of a mission hospital in Tanzania. There for three months he practiced with Rev. Dr. Bill Fryda in the most primitive conditions, testing his surgical skills and his long-held faith in western medicine. After retiring from medicine, he took up flying and declared it his most stimulating pursuit since surgery. He devoted his time on the ground to following the exploits of his grandchildren, attending their recitals and soccer games — pleasures he had sacrificed to his profession when his own sons were young. He adored his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and they adored him. They called him “Ba” and he became their Ba forevermore. Never at rest, he hunted and fished with his devoted friends and filled every minute of his long and strenuous life. He edited his father’s memoirs and meticulously discovered and published his family’s genealogy. His long friendships with other physicians and with his hunting and fishing companions were among the great pleasures of his life. His ever-brilliant smile and easy laugh rewarded wit and good humor even in his last days. But his greatest joy was always returning home to the love of his life, to a dinner party Jeanne had arranged to the last detail, to the fine food she cooked, and to the sparkling conversation of intelligent and interesting people.
Dr. Habein’s brother, Richard Franklin Habein, predeceased him. Dr. Habein is survived by his wife of 62 years, Jeanne; by his three sons and their spouses, Peter (Theresa), Jared (Carly) and Christopher (Judy); by his nephew, Richard Habein (Jessica); by his grandchildren, Tyson, Claire, Abby, Laura, Samuel, Emm, and Grace; by his grandnephews and grandniece, Hayden, Colter, and Cora; and by his great-grandchildren, Grace, Jack and Emerson. We will cherish his memory and the example of his life. See you around the campus, Dad.
A mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. on Monday, Dec. 11, at St. Thomas the Apostle Church, 2055 Woody Drive, with reception to follow.
In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation to RiverStone Hospice, the Billings Public Library, or the Evergreen Chapter of the ALS Association.