“Who can find a virtuous woman?
For her price is far above rubies.
She is like the merchants’ ships,
She brings food from afar.
Strength and honor are her clothing.
She opens her mouth with wisdom.
In her tongue is the law of kindness.
She shall rejoice in the time to come.
Give her of the fruit of her hands.
Let her own works praise her at the gates.”
Columbia (Sassano) Meinhardt, a virtuous woman, passed away on Nov. 29, 2017, in the house she cherished, a month shy of her 95th birthday. Born in her aunt’s 500 sq.ft. Billings home across from Garfield School on Dec. 28, 1922, to Italian immigrant parents, a gentle Louis and passionate Arcangela Sassano, she grew up with warm memories of being a “Southside” girl. After flunking first grade because she did not speak English, she flourished, completing grades 1-8 at nearby Garfield School, and later attended Billings Senior High School, graduating in 1941, the first graduating class of the town’s new high school.
Columbia then commenced a 46-year career in nursing at St. Vincent School of Nursing. In 1944, she graduated, becoming a member of the first graduating class in President Roosevelt’s Cadet Nursing Program.
On Feb. 16, 1945, she entered active duty as a WWII 2nd Lieutenant Army Nurse, stationed at Madigan General Hospital in Tacoma. There, she was a charge nurse in the TB ward, a supervisor and instructor of cadet nurses, and a circulating nurse in the orthopedic and surgical wards. At Madigan, numerous wounded personnel from the South Pacific Theater and Japanese POWs, who returned battered and near death from the forced Death Marches of Bataan and Corregidor, returned stateside for care. Many of the horrors and cruelties of war that she saw and dealt with while working there stayed with her all her life.
On June 2, 1946, Columbia was discharged from the Army at Camp Beale in California. She hopped on a train and gladly returned home to her Mom and Pop in Billings. Taking advantage of President Roosevelt’s G.I. Bill, she soon moved to Spokane and completed postgraduate work at Sacred Heart Hospital’s School of Anesthesia, becoming a nurse anesthetist. When Sister Cornelia called from Billings and asked her to come home and work in the operating rooms of St. Vincent Hospital, she eagerly accepted.
In the early 1950s, while visiting her sister, Mary Schwend, and attending a Bridger rodeo, she caught the eye of local farm boy, Bill Meinhardt. They were soon married in the Stillwater Co. Court House in July 1952, honeymooning in Beehive, MT. For the first decade of their marriage, they lived on and farmed the Meinhardt home place and the old Ben Mar place just south of Bridger, while Columbia also worked in town as a nurse. During these years, they had two daughters.
In 1962, they moved to Billings, where Bill started school at BBC, which proved to be the seed that launched his long career, and Columbia returned to St. Vincent’s to work as a charge nurse in OB/GYN and intensive care. In due course, Columbia worked as a nurse at the Billings Women’s Clinic on North 28th for Drs. Hynes, Hombach, Mattison & Bednarek and finally at Internal Medicine for Drs. Hurly, Lemire & Byorth until retiring in 1987. Most days, she worked long hours, staying late to help patients, chiefly with Dr. Lemire. Together, they diligently cared for this area’s old, sick and poor, frequently not charging for their services. Columbia often said Dr. Lemire was the kindest person she ever knew. She said he would kiss the foreheads of the old ladies that came into the office, saying, “When I kiss them, I kiss my mother.” They were definitely an unparalleled pair of caregivers.
After retiring, Columbia enjoyed gardening, cooking, sewing, their farm in Fishtail, volunteering at St. Vincent’s and above all, dancing with Bill,
Columbia was decidedly proud of the fact that she, her father and three of her siblings served this country in the military, a family of immigrants who never forgot what a privilege it was to be a citizen of this country. She, like her father (a union man), loved President Roosevelt and became lifelong Democrats, never “pulling a lever” for a Republican in their lives.
Columbia is preceded in death by the love of her life, husband Bill; her Mom and Pop, whom she loved so dearly; a sister, Michaelina, who died an infant in Italy; handsome brothers Mike and Tony; and lovely sister Mary (Schwend). She is survived by her talented brother, Nick (Billings); baby brother Fr. Rock Sassano (Beaverton ,OR); two daughters, Dr. Patricia Meinhardt (Niwot, CO); and Gigi and beautiful granddog, Kirby (Billings).
Per her wishes, there will be no service. She said that when we had Bill’s service, we had hers as well. She will be buried at the National Veterans Cemetery plot in Laurel, where Bill is now. Married for 62 years, she never wanted to be without him. Watching her mourn and miss him so terribly these past two and a half years has been painful at times. “She crested and she sank in dark waves. She struggled to continue. She was traveling hard and death was her light.”
They both loved their home of over 50 years and their neighborhood. My mom could look out her kitchen window and see the steps of Marillac Hall, where she started her career. They were so very grateful for all their friends and neighbors, alive and now dead, for helping them and enriching their lives. They would be honored if, in remembering them, you simply help the person next to you.
Special thanks go to the hospice nurses, Gwen and Cindy from Senior Independence, neighbors Denise Armstrong, Sandra and Bill, Sara and Edward, and Roger and Mary for helping fulfill her resolute wish to be in her home at the end.
“The dance floor’s for gliding and not jumping over ponies.
Where boots and gold bracelets come and meet as they should.
It’s for celebrating a Friday night romance.
Forgetting the bad stuff and just feeling good.
An arm’s just an arm til it’s wrapped round a shoulder.
Looped side by side, they go stepping out together.
A note’s just a note til you wake from your slumber.
And dare to discover the new melody.
Sweet is the melody, so hard to come by.
It’s so hard to make every note bend just right.
You lay down the hours and leave not one trace.
But a tune for the dancing is there in its place.”
— Iris Dement, Sweet Is The Melody
Bill and Columbia did the hard work. They shored each other up. They always made good better. They never phoned it in, never rolled over on a responsibility or turned their backs on someone in need of help. Now, as they go out stepping together, they leave us a tune for the dancing in their place.