Gene Wilkins, known fondly to many around Ennis, Mont. as "Doc," passed away on Friday, Dec. 27. Gene was born to Grover and Fern Wilkins in Kennard, Neb. on Aug. 21, 1931 and was the youngest of seven children. Gene graduated high school in Arlington, and then attended the University of Nebraska where he received a degree in agriculture. He then entered the Navy where he trained as a navigator and served four years during the end of the Korean War. Upon completion of his military service, he attended the University of Nebraska where he received his degree in medicine and a lifelong passion for Nebraska Cornhusker football.
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Gene married Nancy Norton in 1961 and began his medical career in York, Neb. He and Nancy had two sons, Jay and Jamie. While practicing in York, he was contacted by Dr. Ron Losee of Ennis who was seeking someone to come to Ennis to assist in the medical needs of the community. Losee had become very busy in his orthopedic work and was in need of someone to handle the day to day medical practice in the area. Gene, being the avid skier, hunter and fisherman that he was, visited Ennis on a winter trip and consequently took the plunge in 1964, moving his young family to the Madison Valley to set up his own practice and establish a new clinic to attend to the general needs of the residents of the Madison Valley. Gene started with the basics including setting up a small lab and system for seeing patients and attending to emergency needs. Gene taught assistants to do the lab work and eventually established an EMT training program to train local volunteers to staff a local ambulance service. After eight years in Ennis, Gene went to Utah and recruited the first PA in the state of Montana. Back then, the Physician's Assistant (PA) program in Utah was unique and Gene saw it as a solution to recruiting doctors to small towns in rural Montana. Gene hired Ron Handlos to work with him; however, Montana had no laws governing physician assistants and so Gene worked with the legislature to get the first laws concerning PAs enacted in the state. After establishing Handlos in Ennis, Gene helped establish a PA in West Yellowstone, Mont. as well. Doc was most proud of his OB work and never hesitated to mention that he had delivered over 400 babies during his career.
Gene and his first wife divorced shortly after moving to Ennis, but Gene stayed on and raised his two young boys with the help of friends, family and the Ennis community. In 1972 he met and subsequently married Eileen Paasch of Elkhorn, Neb. and together they had two daughters, Sarah and Julie. All four children graduated from Ennis High School, and Gene spent many hours enjoying and watching them in their pursuits and sporting events.
Doc Wilkins tried more than once to retire from medicine was continually called back due to lack of physicians in the area. He finally retired from medicine for good in 2004 when his wife, Eileen, became ill. Gene was by her side through her cancer ordeal which ended in 2005 with her death. Gene devoted his life to the medical needs of the Ennis community in a career that spanned four decades, and he was honored for this service in the dedication of the new clinic and hospital in the summer of 2011.
Throughout his life, Gene continued to enjoy hunting and fishing and was also an avid gardener. He loved living in his home on Ennis Lake and sharing that home with a multitude of he and Eileen's friends and family. Fourth of July on Ennis Lake has been a huge gathering time for friends and family alike, and Gene was always the gracious host. Everyone was always welcomed at "the lake" all year round. Gene never lost his farming roots, and the lake property reflected this as he tended to his sheep, cows and horses. When fishing, gardening or "farming" he was rarely seen without his trademark cigar.
Gene loved painting in watercolor and invested many years practicing and creating some truly wonderful works of art. An annual holiday event for many family and friends was his personal Christmas cards. In October he would start working at his art table sketching ideas and smiling to himself. He would never tell the family what the annual painting would be, causing all the kids to watch for weeks as the painting evolved into its final form. His paintings reflected his love of the outdoors, family and a superb wry sense of humor.
Gene was a quiet, gentle man with a huge heart. Besides being a country doctor he would be described by most as a true country gentleman.
He was a member of the Madison Valley Presbyterian Church of Ennis and was ordained as an elder. He was an active member of the Hospital board for several years and was a member of Masonic Lodge #2 in Ennis.
Gene is survived by his four children and 10 grandchildren; Jay Wilkins of Bozeman, his wife, Heidi Wilkins and their two children, Cameron, 17, and Kiley, 14. Jamie Wilkins of Helena, Mont., his wife, Katie Wilkins and their children, Chase, 21, Grace, 9, William, 5 and Noah, 1. Sarah (Wilkins) Schreiber of Sheridan, Wyo. with children, Luke, 4 and Eli, 1. Julie (Wilkins) York of Loyalton, Calif. with husband, Todd York and children, Riley, 24 and Becky, 26. Sister, Ruth Kruger of Elkhorn, Neb. and sister-in-law, Toby Wilkins of Ennis, sister-in-law, Muriel Wilkins of Nebraska and a multitude of nieces and nephews throughout Nebraska, Montana and beyond.
He was preceded in death by wife, Eileen, his parents, and his brothers: Jamie, William G. Bob, Joe C. and sister, Eva Pearson.
Memorials are suggested to: Madison Valley Medical Center Foundation, 305 N. Main Street, Ennis, MT 59729 or Madison Valley Presbyterian Church, Box 125, Ennis, MT 59729.
Services will be held at 10 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 3 at the Madison Valley Presbyterian Church in Ennis, Mont. Fellowship luncheon at the church following internment.
Published in Bozeman Daily Chronicle on Dec. 31, 2013