Robert ‘Fehl’ Erick Fehlberg, 93
Robert Erick Fehlberg, the cornerstone of our family, passed away at age 93 on Aug. 17, 2019, after living three years at Mocho Park Care Center in Livermore, California. He was actively drawing plans, sketching and writing historical notes about the family, still attending social events with family out and about. He was Lutheran in faith. The family gathered at the family home in Pleasanton, California, for a day of remembrance.
Robert was born in Kalispell April 28, 1926, to Mary Grace Fehlberg and Otto Albert Erick Fehlberg. He was reared in the family home in Coram, where the family business was a grocery store/gas station and tourist cabins built by Otto along the main road to Glacier National Park. When Robert was 10 years old, his sister Marilyn was born. Robert attended grade school in Coram and rode the school bus to attend high school in Columbia Falls. As a basketball player, he boarded at the school dorm during the week for basketball season. He worked summers in Glacier Park on trail crews and after high school he enlisted in the U.S. Army where he earned the rank of T.4 technical sergeant. After the war Robert was chosen to escort German prisoners held in the U.S. on a ship leaving California through the Panama Canal to England where they were returned to Germany. The return trip brought United States servicemen held as prisoners back to the United States. After his military discharge, Robert enrolled at the University of Montana in Missoula, majoring in forestry based on his earlier experiences in Glacier Park. He soon found his main interest was in architecture and transferred to Montana State College in Bozeman, now Montana State University. He became an active member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and made lifelong friends who called him Fehl.
Upon graduating in architecture, Fehl was hired in the structural documents department of Hungry Horse Dam. A year later he joined the Gehres Weed Architects firm in Kalispell. He met LaDonna Rognlie through a mutual friend. During their engagement year, Fehl designed and built a house for them near Woodland Park in Kalispell, teaching LaDonna to cut and nail sheathing boards for the walls and the roofing. They were married in 1953. In 1956 Fehl opened his own office in Kalispell. In 1958, he was called by Cushing Terrell Associates, a Billings architectural firm, to join them as designer. He became a partner in the firm with his design career expanding throughout Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Alaska. Fehl earned his pilot license and flew the CTA Cessna for office projects, some recreation and family trips.
Fehl, a man of many skills and talents, designed a broad scope of buildings. His educational projects include preschools, high school and college campuses with associated libraries, theaters and sports facilities. The plans for churches, commercial buildings, government facilities and custom homes were also created on his drawing board. He often incorporated site-specific artworks by Montana artists in the buildings he designed.
Their daughter Kolby was born in Kalispell. The family became complete with Kenje, Kurt and Klee born in Billings. Their lives centered around architecture and the arts. Kolby learned her architectural drafting skills from Fehl. They all learned to ski with Fehl’s guidance and make ceramics on the family’s potter’s wheel. Kurt followed Fehl into architecture and remembers sitting on Fehl’s lap as a child learning the basics of making clay pottery. Kenje’s happy memories of skiing at Red Lodge Mountain with her dad are with her whenever and wherever she enjoys the skills she learned from him. Klee found the trips he took with the family in the United States whetted his appetite to travel in other countries. A sense of humor came naturally, playful mischief in a loving family. His grandchildren added another dimension of joy. They also had an appreciation of the talents people have to offer. This extended to volunteering in community.
Fehl and LaDonna were active members of the Montana Institute of the Arts and the Flathead Camera Club in Kalispell. They moved to Billings and already knew many of the artists in the Billings Arts Association. When Mayor Willard Fraser and Virginia Snook asked Fehl to evaluate the possibility of remodeling the vacant County Jail into an art center, he readily agreed and recognized all its possibilities. They asked James Haughey, as a lawyer and an artist to join them. With representatives from every cultural organization in the city, they approached the County Commissioners. With Fehl’s plans considered the commissioners gave them the go-ahead. Volunteers from every walk of life in the county offered their skills and ambition to fulfill the renovation of the county jail to the Yellowstone Art Center, now known as the Yellowstone Art Museum. Fehl directed the project from the CTA office daytime, worked on site every evening and every weekend until the Art Center had its grand opening. He served terms on the Art Center board of directors and represented MAC on the County Commissioners board. He consulted on the surfacing art centers that followed, Carbon County Art Center in Miles City, Lewistown Art Center and several others.
Fehl served as president of most of the organizations he enjoyed, including the Montana Chapter of AIA. He was elected to serve on the American Institute of Architects board of directors as Northwest regional director for a four-year term. His region included Hawaii, Alaska, Idaho, Washington, Guam, Wyoming and Montana. He visited the AIA chapters in these states each year and connected them to the National AIA board and the National board with them. The Montana State University Architectural Department responded and benefited from having his direct connection to the AIA National board. Fehl was named a Fellow in the American Institute of Architects.
Fehl received the Fellow award in the Montana Institute of the Arts. He and LaDonna received the Montana Governor’s Award for the Arts as a couple. One of his photographs was selected for the MIA Permanent Art Collection now housed at the University of Montana, Missoula.
Fehl retired from CTA in 1987 and he and LaDonna moved to Pleasanton, California, to be near family. He continued to be a liaison architect for CTA onsite designing the high school in Green River, Wyoming. He also had CTA projects in Sitka, AK, where he developed his own firm and continued his architectural practice for 15 years there and more in Pleasanton.
Architecture was his lifetime dedication. Robert’s family was his treasure. The friendships he made along the way are indelible.
Robert was predeceased by his parents Otto and Mary Grace Fehlberg, and his sister Marilyn Fleming.
Surviving Robert are his wife, LaDonna; children, Kolby Fehlberg-Burns (James); Kenje Fehlberg; Kurt Fehlberg (Lauri); Klee Fehlberg (Linda Tam); and grandchildren, Acacia Burns Camacho, Echelle Burns; Kelcey Dixon, Keanon Dixon; and Keil Tam Fehlberg. Also surviving Robert are his brother-in-law Robert Fleming, niece Heidi Coatsworth, nephews James Fleming and Michael Fleming.
To pass on the legacy of Robert Fehlberg’s lifelong passion for architecture and the arts to the next generation, a scholarship fund has been established at Montana State University, College of Arts and Architecture. This scholarship will provide support to an architecture graduate student who will become the mentor of future generations of architects. Memorial gifts for Fehl’s legacy may be made by contacting the “Robert and LaDonna Fehlberg Memorial Scholarship” MSU Director of Development Allison Ziegelman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 608- 385-0696 or online at https://securelb.imodules.com/s/1584/form.aspx?sid=1584&gid=1&pgid=452&ble dit=1&dids=273.