With the death of Bob DePratu on Friday morning, Whitefish has lost another of its beloved community leaders.
DePratu’s passing at age 74 following an extended illness comes on the heels of the very recent deaths of Norm Kurtz, a longtime Whitefish ski resort manager and civic standout, and June Munski-Feenan, who founded and tirelessly ran North Valley Food Bank for decades.
DePratu’s friends and associates said his legacy to the Whitefish community and state of Montana runs deep. He served as a state senator from Whitefish from 1995 to 2004.
As vice chairman and then chairman of the Senate Taxation Committee, DePratu shepherded legislation that lowered the state’s income and capital gains taxes. During an Inter Lake interview two years ago, DePratu said he considered the tax legislation his most noteworthy accomplishment as a legislator.
“He got into that important position as chair of the Senate Taxation Committee during his second session,” recalled longtime friend Bob Brown, who recruited DePratu to run for his Senate seat. “That shows the respect other legislators had for his ability. He was extremely effective.
“He was my good friend and he had many good friends,” Brown commented. “If anyone was a gentleman, it was Bob DePratu.”
Brown and other local leaders, including Bob Lawson, Charlie Abell, Bill Beck and DePratu, got together generally once a month for lunch over the past several years. As DePratu’s health declined, his friends would bring lunch to him and often drove him around so he could keep up on what was happening in the Flathead Valley.
Lawson said he had a good conversation with DePratu on Monday. “We were talking and reminiscing about the old days,” he said.
“He was a great man, a great gentleman who was willing to work with anyone and everyone,” said Lawson, who served as a state representative from Whitefish at the same time DePratu served in the Senate.
Abell said his first project with DePratu was when the two of them went door-to-door collecting donations to build North Valley Hospital in the late 1960s. Abell’s wife, Susan, was treasurer for two of DePratu’s campaigns.
“He was a very honest, straightforward person,” Abell said. “He was a deep thinker. He always thought things through.”
The Whitefish Chamber of Commerce honored DePratu in 2012 with the esteemed Great Whitefish Award that honors one person’s lifetime contributions to the community.
DePratu was well-known for his many years of owning and running the Ford dealership in Whitefish.
When he bought the franchise from Sterling Rygg in June 1964, he was just 23, but Ford’s regulations forced him to wait until his 24th birthday a month later to take over the business. At the time he was the youngest Ford franchise dealer in the United States.
He learned early on in life that hard work was the gateway to a better life. As his family eked out a living in “old” Rexford that’s now part of Lake Koocanusa, DePratu got his first job at age 9 when his father bought him a rototiller. He worked the neighbors’ enormous gardens for $5 apiece.
During his seventh- and eighth-grade years at the Rexford school, he would line up prospective customers to buy vehicles from Rygg Ford.
“I was car crazy” he admitted in the 2012 Inter Lake interview. “To see a new car was something really special.”
And since cars were sold door to door in those days, it was a perfect part-time job. He later sold cars for Rygg after graduating from Lincoln County High School in Eureka in 1957, and during the summer between his two years at Kinman Business University in Spokane, where he earned an associate degree in accounting.
He got his driver’s license at age 12 and delivered groceries after school for several years. By 15 he was foreman of the hay crew for the Sam Leighty farm at Rexford. At 16 he was working with a crew at Valcor Logging, driving tie trucks and operating a skid cat.
After he married Bea in 1959, the couple settled into Whitefish and DePratu went right to work at the Ford dealership selling cars for Rygg until he bought the business five years later.
The next few years were a blur of work and duty, and DePratu would put his well-honed work ethic to good use.
They bought the View Mount Motel (where Rocky Mountain Lodge now is located) and built the first indoor swimming pool in town.
Then they acquired the Husky Service Station and added a wrecker service that involved DePratu getting called out many a night.
In 1972 they added a Budget Rent-a-Car franchise to their mix of businesses, with an office at the Ford dealership and an outlet at the airport. They had a shuttle service, too.
As DePratu himself put it: “We worked 24/7.”
Hank Olson, who owned the Chevrolet dealership in Whitefish from the late 1970s to the mid-80s, remembers how he and DePratu collaborated and started the “Car Wars” promotion in which they both brought cars to a common location and “sold a lot of them.”
“We were supposed to hate each other,” Olson said with a laugh. Instead, they found ways to work together.
“He was the nicest human being I’ve ever met,” Olson stated.
DePratu joined the Whitefish Fire Department in 1968 for a 20-year stint and served two years as fire chief.
Brown remembers DePratu being part of the fire crew that saved his parents’ old log home from burning to the ground after a chimney fire started.
“The fire was raging ... They got from Whitefish to Bissell in less than 10 minutes and saved the house. Bob DePratu was there,” Brown said.
The DePratus sold off some of their businesses by the late 1970s, which freed them up to build a new auto dealership on U.S. 93 in 1984 and relocate from downtown Whitefish.
Taking a leadership role in the auto industry also has been important to DePratu. He was president of the Montana Auto Dealers Association and was named to the Ford Motor Co. National Dealer Council in 1981, when he served on the new products and political affairs committees. And he served on Ford’s customer resolution board for six years.
DePratu was proud of the work ethic he and Bea instilled in their own three children, Bret, Bart and Brenda. All three worked at the dealership during their youth. Bart joined the business as a partner in 1985 and remains a primary owner. Brenda is the parts and service director.
DePratu retired from the auto dealership about five years ago but continued to stop by nearly every day at the business he loved.
His community service has ranged from being a yeti in the Winter Carnival to faithful involvement with the Jaycees, Rotary and Chamber of Commerce.
“He’s always been very generous with his time and in making contributions to worthwhile organizations,” Brown noted.
Lawson agreed, adding, “he always thought about the community first.”
Visitation for DePratu will be from 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 5, at Austin Funeral Home in Whitefish. A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 6, at the Whitefish Emergency Services Center. Burial will follow at Glacier Memorial Gardens in Kalispell.
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at email@example.com.