Virginia E. Sutich

Virginia E. Sutich, 91, of Great Falls, a retired rehabilitation counselor, died of natural causes Monday, Dec. 3, at a local long term care facility.

Her memorial service is 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Hillcrest Lawn Memorial Chapel, with inurnment to follow in Mount Olivet Cemetery. Schnider Funeral Home is handling arrangements.

Virginia Ellen Sutich was born Dec. 1, 1921, in Jamestown, N.D. She was the first of eight children born to John and Agnes Anwiler. Even though she was a full term baby, she only weighed 3 1/2 pounds and was not expected to live. She was called the "miracle baby," at that time the smallest infant born in Jamestown to survive. Her father kept her warm by the fire and fed her with an eye dropper, determined that his firstborn would survive. When the doctors told her father she was blind and would never be able to read, he encouraged her with the same zest he used at the time of her birth, and she surprised everyone by not only surviving, but excelling at whatever she set her mind to do.

In 1933, her family moved to Minnesota, where there were more opportunities for the childrens' schooling. Virginia attended public schools until her father arranged for her to attend a school for the blind in Fairbault, Minn. She excelled in school and went on to attend junior college in Coleraine, Minn., earning a teaching certificate. She taught in rural schools in North Dakota and Minnesota. She was awarded a fellowship to attend Hunter College in New York City and taught preschool deaf and blind children at the New York Institute for the Blind. Deciding she did not like the big city, she taught children in rural Kansas. During summer breaks, she taught adult blind students in Kansas, Iowa and eventually Montana. She met Mike Sutich in Bozeman while he was attending Montana State University and she was teaching weaving at the Montana Summer School for the Blind. They were married Dec. 27, 1949, in Grand Rapids, Minn.

Virginia and Mike settled in Tracy, where they raised four children. When the two older children started school, Virginia went back to school and earned her teaching degree at the College of Great Falls. She graduated in 1963 and taught at Sts. Peter and Paul Elementary School. Always an advocate for education, she was instrumental in starting the Title 1 program at Centerville schools. In addition to raising a family, continuing her education and working full-time, she was also a 4-H leader, member of the Centerville PTA, active in the Catholic Church and participated in the Montana Legacy Legislature.

After two trips to Portland, Ore., for surgical repair of a detached retina and further loss of vision, Virginia returned to the College of Great Falls and continued her studies in education. She then started her next career as the first rehabilitation teacher for the blind for the state of Montana. She covered 15 counties in north central Montana.

Always an advocate for the disabled, she was active in the Montana Association for the Blind and helped plan the annual Summer School for the Blind. She was active at the local, state and national levels advocating for the blind. She worked with local businesses to help in their efforts to make facilities accessible to the handicapped and advised them where to place Braille signage for their visually impaired clients. She worked with local community leaders to simulate physical and visual impairments so they could experience the challenges of living with a physical disability. She offered training for healthcare staff in various facilities to increase awareness and skills for working with the physically disabled. She served on several advisory boards and committees, including the Governor's Council for Visual Services and Independent Living, Transition Committee for the Blind and Visually Handicapped Youth and US West Consumer Panel on communication problems of low income, elderly and disabled people. She served as president of the Montana Independent Living Project. Virginia attended the first White House Conference on the Handicapped in Washington, D.C., during the Carter administration. She was consulted by the National Park Service as they started to develop handicapped accessible trails in the National Park System.

Never able to drive, she depended on family, neighbors and public transportation to get her where she needed to be. When arthritis made climbing on buses and in and out of cabs too difficult for her to reach her clients, Virginia was forced to retire and continued her work closer to home in a volunteer capacity.

In 1989, Virginia entered a world of total darkness. There was nothing eye specialists in Seattle could do to correct her vision. She traveled to Little Rock, Ark., this time as a student, to learn additional skills to remain independent. She continued to volunteer and in 1991 was recognized as the YWCA Woman of the Year for Public Service and was named Centerville Senior Citizen of the Year.

In her spare time, or any time she was sitting, she listened to countless talking books and journals while crocheting afghans. She crocheted afghans and doll blankets for fundraisers, wedding, birthday, graduation and baby gifts, the Mercy Home, the Children's Receiving Home and of course the family. One of the grandchildren's favorite memories was going to the yarn shop to pick out the colors of yarn for the afghan Grandma would make.

She is survived by children Patty (Robert) Shepard of Huntsville, Ala., Mike (Marie) Sutich of Great Falls, Kathy (Steve) Umphres of Stockett and Bob Sutich of Great Falls; grandchildren Dewey Sutich, Amber Sutich, Natalie Bagwell, Jessica McWilliams, Robby Shepard, Heather Voeller and Becky Brown; great-grandchildren Allie Heathcoat, Ani Sutich, Taylor and Satori Carson, Westley Ickes, Shelby and Alexis McWilliams, Will and Ben Bagwell and Tristan Brown; and one great-great-grandchild, Zoey Heathcoat.

Virginia was preceded in death by her husband, Mike; her parents; brothers Bill, Jack, Jim, Bob, Rudy and Roger; and sister Betty.

Virginia was an amazing woman who lived a full life as student, teacher, advocate, mother and grandmother. She was always learning and always teaching, never content to sit in a rocking chair. Once asked if she liked teaching adults or children better, she said "I love teaching children, but I also love teaching adults." She was an inspiration to us all, did not tolerate a "can't do" attitude and was the ultimate "Little Engine That Could."

In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to Peace Hospice of Montana, 1101 26th St., S., Great Falls, MT 59405 or the .

Condolences may be posted online at and/or

Published in Great Falls Tribune on Dec. 6, 2012