Cover photo for Michael Lee Letson's Obituary
Michael Lee Letson Profile Photo

Michael Lee Letson

October 15, 1942 — February 21, 2024

West Yellowstone, MT / Surprise, AZ

Michael Lee Letson

Michael Lee Letson, Sr., of West Yellowstone, MT and Surprise, AZ died on Wednesday morning, February 21, 2024. His 81 years were an epic adventure.  Never one to settle, he was always ahead of his time and never let lack of experience stop him from pursuing a vision.

Mike was born to Evelyn Lee and William Alson Letson on October 15, 1942 in Atascadero, CA, during his father’s military career. Bill, Eve, and their sons Ron and Mike settled near family in Red Cloud, NE and enjoyed a life deeply rooted in hunting, fishing, and raucous mischief. Mike attended Red Cloud schools, graduated from Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, MO in 1960, and earned a degree in Finance from University of Denver in 1964.

Mike, an energetic and gifted polymath, was a born entrepreneur who created opportunities for himself to learn and earn from an early age. His first successful business venture at age six was reselling flies (which he bought out from the fly shop) for substantial profit to fishermen at Fishing Bridge in Yellowstone National Park while on a family vacation. He also ran a loan shark business while in Military School. His parents asked him to pursue a career in medicine, and offered to pay for his education, though Mike bristled at the idea and chose to chart his own path, relinquishing all monetary assistance. To pay for University and his hunting and fishing adventures he prepared tax returns for H&R Block during tax season. Mike’s singular vision, drive, and forthright nature were his calling cards winning him life-long friends and vocal critics alike.  

Mike began his career at United California Bank, Los Angeles in 1964 and became the youngest VP Manager of First Western Bank at age 27. He married Susan Smith in 1968 (they remained married for 15 years) and in 1971 pivoted to building custom homes in Danville, CA as President of Pacific Structures. Mike and Susan welcomed Alison Christine in 1972 and Michael Jr. in 1974. Seeking greater access to outdoor life, Mike and family moved to Shelby, MT, in 1977 and he re-entered banking as Vice President of Toole County State Bank. During his subsequent tenure as Director at the Bank, Mike became interested in energy and natural gas and departed to form Northern Plains Energy Corp and Energy Compression and Leasing in 1981. He sold these successful companies and retired for the first time at age 40, filling his time with coaching Little League, Shelby School Board, hunting, fishing, C.M. Russell Art Auction, and Montana State Republican politics. He served as the Montana State Republican Party Treasurer (1986-87) and Director (1983-88). Itching for a challenge, Mike staged a successful proxy vote and took over a number of public oil and gas partnerships from Vicorp Energy Inc, thus beginning Partnership Management Company in 1987, and Letson Oil Co in 1988, which he operated successfully for over 20 years. Mike also ran a successful grassroots fundraising campaign for Montana Gov. Stan Stephens, was Chairman for the Montana State Banking Board (1989-1990) and was appointed Director of MT Department of Commerce in 1989 prompting a move to Helena, MT. Following his contentious time in politics he married Michone Walter in 1990 and moved to West Yellowstone in 1993 where he was the VP and Director of Firehole Land Corp, which developed Grizzly Park and was the Principal of Grizzly Gallery, a culmination of his passions for art, commerce, and the outdoors. He worked closely with his partners to develop Yellowstone National Park’s west entrance and built relationships with many artists resulting in multiple major life size bronze wildlife installations in West Yellowstone. Mike’s second retirement came in 1998 when he sold the Grizzly Gallery. A desire to reduce the volume of snow he shoveled prompted a seasonal move to Surprise, AZ in 2000 where he immediately immersed himself in local board work and business consulting. Mike and Michone parted ways in 2007. From mid 2008 through 2014 he engaged his passion for wildlife and western art lending his expertise in fundraising, auction, art acquisition and artist selection at Wickenburg, AZ’s Desert Caballeros Western Museum as Trustee and also Chairman the of Cowgirl Up! art auction 2010-2013. Refusing to slow down in recent years, Mike traveled the world for adventure and pleasure and continued to actively consult on art, investments, and business through February 2024. He lived life his way, on his terms. He was a remarkable, lightning rod personality, the charismatic life of a party, and filled with ideas to make any situation better. His constructive criticism was sought by many, though his direct manner earned him handfuls of colorful monikers over the years. If you knew him you likely heard, “Work smarter, not harder.”

Every aspect of Mike’s life revolved around wildlife and the great outdoors. He enjoyed sharing hiking, skiing, fishing and hunting trips with family and friends and strangers who didn’t yet know they had lifelong friendship in store. He gathered with family and friends for an annual Thanksgiving week pheasant and quail hunting trip in Nebraska for over 55 consecutive years. A consummate fly fisherman, he competed in Jackson Hole’s One Fly fly fishing tournament three times (placing second), and traveled internationally to fly fish with Michael Jr. and many friends. 

Mike was preceded in death by his parents and brother Ron, and is survived by his daughter Alison Letson, son Michael Letson (Elaine Minton), grandchildren Grace and Holton Letson, partner BJ Westerhaus, Sister-in-Law Dianne Letson, niece Laura Letson (Russell Callender and Lauren Callender) and nephew Wally Letson (Jettie and Jay). 

Ever an iconoclast, Mike eschewed traditional endings. To celebrate his epic life, instead of a funeral, please gather with your family and friends and raise a glass at a BBQ, float a river and wet a line, pick huckleberries together, catch and release trout, and marvel at the beauty of this Earth. Mike’s ashes will be scattered beneath Montana’s Big Sky this summer.

 

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