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Friends remember Dona Stebbins

Dona Stebbins
Posted at 5:53 PM, May 01, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-01 20:44:57-04

GREAT FALLS — Former Great Falls Mayor Dona Stebbins died on Friday, April 26, 2024, just a few weeks shy of her 77th birthday.

Stebbins served as mayor of Great Falls for two terms. She was first elected in 2006 and served through 2010.

Stebbins' stamp on the community went far beyond her time of leading the city commission. She also made a profound impact in other areas of the community.

“Dona always treated everyone with grace and with respect,” said former Great Falls City Commissioner Bill Bronson who served with Stebbins on the commission.

Bronson says he was honored to be asked by Stebbins to sit next to him at meetings, which could sometimes be made contentious by members of the public who were asked to give their name and address when commenting. Bronson says one such frequent commenter proved how Stebbins respected everyone.
“Dona said, next, and he comes up and he gives us his name. Then he said, and I live in hell. Without missing a lick, she says, Address, please,” said Bronson. “Of course, the audience starts to giggle. Even this individual, I could see cracked a little bit of a smile. But that's how she was able to deflect some of the nastiness and some of the criticism.”

Dana Kirkmeyer first met Dona in a bar when Dona was playing in a band. The two got close as they worked together at Center Stage Theater. When a cast member for the play “Cabaret” which Dona was directing got sick, she called Dana on short notice to fill-in.

“It worked out beautifully,” said Kirkmeyer. “In fact, I had someone come up to me after the show as I was leaving that said, “We never really noticed you were holding the script in your hand. You were so good at what you did.” So that was a compliment. And Dona was right there and she said, ‘There's a reason I called her.’”

Dona Stebbins
Dona Stebbins

Kirkmeyer says she and Stebbins did have a falling out, but eventually rekindled their strong friendship.

“I knew that she was always there if I needed anything,” said Kirkmeyer. “That's just who Dona was. She was there for all of her friends. She and I eventually got together and made up our differences and the friendship that we had withstood the time.”

Kirkmeyer also knew Dona was a loving wife and devoted mother.

“I can remember her daughter, Kate, when she was young, she would come down to the theater and she would sit and draw while we were either rehearsing or whether we were building the sets,” said Kirkmeyer. “She was just always involved, and Dona and Grant both wanted her to be involved.”

It wasn’t just Dona’s kids who she cared about. Kirkmeyer says Stebbins was a theater mom to countless people, including Nick Van Atta who didn’t want to be on stage, but wanted to operate the theater lighting system.

“He passed away and Dona was devastated because she said, ‘There is my light man.’ He was he was the epitome of a great light operator,” said Kirkmeyer.

Dona Russelle Stebbins
May 24, 1947 ~ April 26, 2024
Dona Russelle Stebbins
May 24, 1947 ~ April 26, 2024

Former KRTV weather anchor Joe Lawson, now living in Oregon, had worked on a Center Stage production and caught Dona’s attention, illuminating Stebbins’ eye for talent.

“She really was the kind of person who if she saw somebody that she thought would be great in a show, whether we were talented or not, she would give us an opportunity to prove what we could do on stage,” said Lawson.

Lawson had left Great Falls before Stebbins became mayor. But he says it wasn’t surprising to him to know that just like her work in the theater, she respected people in role as a city leader.

“I can see where she would have carried that same kind of feeling and attitude in that even if you had a difference of opinion in a theatrical setting or on stage, she did respect you and she cared about what you had to say, and she would listen,” said Lawson.

Lawson said it's difficult to find people with the all-around commitment that Stebbins had.

“She brought not only the caring about the process of politicking and doing politics and working with other people in that arena, she also cared about the people of Great Falls,” said Lawson. “That’s more important than anything.”

Talent, charisma, and compassion are just a few of the characteristic's others saw in Stebbins.

“There's no doubt Dona was a force of nature,” said Lawson. “She was the kind of person that could brighten a room and just walk in and be full of energy.”

“It didn't matter if she was good friends with you or if she was just an occasional friend,” said Kirkmeyer. “She welcomed everyone. That was one of her strengths.”

“I think we all have people that we know in life other than family, who when they pass on, we like to say, I really am glad that I knew that person,” said Bronson. “For me, Dona is one of those people. I’m truly glad to say that I had the opportunity to know her in this brief span of life that she did have.”