John Ray Black was born on September 15, 1928 in Los Angeles, California, and passed away surrounded by his beloved family at Mission Ridge Senior Living Community in Billings, Montana, on September 17, 2017, having just marked his 89th birthday.
The third child of Allen and Florence (Beard) Black, John spent his childhood in Glendale, California, where he attended public schools in the Glendale Unified School District graduating from Herbert Hoover High School in the summer of 1945.
As a young man, John was active in the Boy Scouts of America, achieving the rank of Eagle Scout in 1945. John also worked a number of jobs as a youth, including mowing lawns, running a filling station (during the height of WWII gas rationing) and working at naval rest center in Yosemite National Park.
The end of the Second World War in August 1945 put an end to John’s plan to enlist in the U.S. Navy and instead he headed to the University of Idaho, where, following a year of study, he enlisted in the U.S. Army.
Assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, John qualified as a paratrooper and worked as a company mess sergeant. He took a liking to the army and had given serious consideration to remaining in the service as an enlisted man.
His course was changed when one evening, working late in the kitchen, he found himself in one-on-one conversation with the 82nd’s commander, the famous Major General James Gavin (apparently even major generals are not adverse to a midnight snack so long as it is under the guise of an informal inspection.)
Upon hearing that John had had already completed a year of college, General Gavin expressed his opinion that his best option for himself and the U.S. Army would be for John to return to school and enroll in the Reserved Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and return to the service with his degree as a commissioned officer. What else do you do when the commanding general makes a suggestion?
Returning to Moscow, John majored in forestry and joined the ROTC, eventually rising to be the Cadet Colonel of the University of Idaho battalion. He also joined the Sigma Nu fraternity. Most importantly, it was during his time as a Vandal that he met, courted and married the love of his life.
Florence Wohlschlegel was an English major and part of the Alpha Chi Omega sorority. After a year’s courtship, John and Florence were united in holy matrimony on March 3, 1951, at First Presbyterian Church in her hometown of Idaho Falls, Idaho.
In marrying Florence, John always claimed that he “was the luckiest man in the world.” Their family and friends often commented that their 66 years together “seemed like one long honeymoon.” The union would produce three beloved children: John, Susan and Allen.
The summer of 1951 found the newlyweds college graduates and John commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army beginning what would turn out to be a 27-year career in the officer corps, primarily as a staff officer and infantry commander. John saw combat on three occasions, a tour in Korea and two tours in Vietnam. Other duty stations included Hokkaido in occupied Japan, working on the Pentagon’s “Russia Desk” during the Cuban Missile Crisis, helping to coordinate the preparations for the state funeral of President John F. Kennedy, commanding units ranging in size from a company to a brigade, and to conclude his career a tour as post commander Fort Wainwright, Alaska. For his service, John received numerous awards and commendations, including two Silver Stars and a Bronze Star for gallantry in combat, the Legion of Merit and the Purple Heart for wounds sustained by enemy fire. He retired in 1977 with the rank of Colonel.
After the Army, John and Florence returned to Idaho Falls, where he worked for the Health Systems Agency and was also a substitute teacher. John volunteered with Civitan International, the soup kitchen, and served as a Scoutmaster and leader in the Grand Teton Council of the Boy Scouts of America and was awarded the Silver Beaver. In retirement, John liked to fish and play golf. He and Florence traveled extensively across the United States, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
John became a grandfather six times over, taking extra-special care to cherish the time he spent with each of the grandchildren, including taking each of them on a special trip when they turned 9 years old.
In 2010, John and Florence left Idaho Falls after three decades and moved to Mission Ridge in Billings, where he served on the resident council, played bridge with the “grumpy old men” and participated in Wii bowling. He also volunteered with Family Promise.
A man of great faith, he attended First Congregational UCC and St. Paul’s United Methodist in Idaho Falls and Mayflower Congregational UCC in Billings.
John’s favorite saying epitomized how he lived his life. It was from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”: “This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
He was preceded in death by his parents; his sister, Lois Jean; and his brother, Art.
He is survived by his beloved wife, Florence; children John Black (Debi), Susan Barton and Allen Black (Pat Hayes); grandchildren John Black (Liz), Sarah Black, Jed Barton, Katie Barton (Justin Head), Jordan Black and Hannah Lasseigne (Cody); and great-grandchildren Stephen Fennell, Journey Black and Daphne Black.
The family is grateful to the staff of St. John’s Lutheran Ministries, the Billings VA Clinic, Billings Clinic, Right at Home, and RiverStone Health Hospice (particularly Monica, Amber, Kathy, Kim and Noelle) for the support and care they provided our husband/ dad/grandpa during his final illness.
A memorial service will be at 2 p.m. Tuesday, September 26, at the Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ, 2940 Poly Drive in Billings. Inurnment was held privately at Yellowstone National Cemetery in Laurel.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to RiverStone Health Hospice (123 South 27th Street Billings, MT 59101) or to a charity of your choice.