The invincible Esther (Hetland) Hagen passed away at Legacy Assisted Living in Helena, Mont., on October 7, 2021, with family by her side.  She was an amazing woman and will be deeply missed.

Esther was born at home in the Folden Hills near Henning, on February 23, 1923, the second of three daughters born to Cyrus and Lizzie Hetland.  

Esther often told stories of her life in the Folden Hills and of the people who lived there.  It was a time of hard work and not much money, but of neighbors helping one another.  It was a joy to drive through those hills with Esther and her sister, Norma, listening to the stories they shared of growing up during that time.  

Esther attended country schools in the area and graduated from the eighth grade.  She was confirmed in her faith at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Henning in 1936. Esther never went to high school.  Instead, she got a job helping in the homes of some families in the Henning area where she was paid a small wage and received room and board. At one time she also worked candling eggs that were made into dried eggs to be sent overseas to feed our troops during World War II.

Music was important in Esther’s life.  Visitors to her home were often greeted with country music blasting from the radio or CD player and Esther herself doing the vocals.  When she was growing up, her father played several instruments and was called upon regularly to play at neighborhood dances and other occasions.  Esther learned to play the accordion and guitar, and her sister, Norma, played the piano or keyboard.  It was so fun to be with them when they were older and entertained us with their musical skills.  They truly had more fun than anyone!  

Both Esther and Norma were huge George Jones fans.  One of the highlights of Esther’s life was the birthday gift of seeing George Jones live in concert in Billings.  There was a terrible snowstorm that weekend, but her son-in-law Larry got her there safely to see her idol!  Esther and Norma were such devoted fans that they exchanged sympathy cards with one another when George passed away.

Esther began dating Gust Hagen in the early 1940s, but there was a war going on and things were complicated.  In 1943 there were plans for a wedding when Gust came home on leave from the Army.  He came home but, unfortunately, his intended bride had the measles and was quarantined, so there was no wedding!   Finally, on June 24, 1944, they were married in Henning.  They celebrated 53 anniversaries together, until Gust’s death in March of 1997.

Their daughter, Karen Marie, was born in 1946 in Wadena. In the summer of 1951, the family moved to East Helena, Mont., joining other relatives who had moved to the area.  Their son, James Erling, was born in November 1951.  

In 1956 Gust and Esther purchased a house on West Main Street in East Helena.  Esther lived there for the next 63 years, until 2019 when she sold the house and moved to Legacy Assisted Living in Helena. This was the house where so many family memories were made:  holiday dinners with other Hagens in the area, Christmas Eve with lutefisk and all the trimmings, and amazing Fourth of July picnics with dozens of friends and grandkids.  The house was also Halloween headquarters for the great grandkids, with a special dinner followed by a fun night trick or treating down Main Street. 

Esther loved her home and her family.  Her house was always spotlessly clean and her flowers and yard were the prettiest on the block.  After Gust’s death, she worked hard to continue keeping things in good shape.  Well into her 90s, she could be found painting her house and fences, shoveling her sidewalks in the winter, and mowing and watering her lawn in the summer.  She had the biggest and best tomatoes in town.  It was a family joke that you had to be quick if you wanted to help her—if too much time passed, she would get impatient and do it herself. 

Esther loved shopping, and great memories were made when she joined Karen, Anna, granddaughters and great granddaughters for overnight Christmas shopping trips to Missoula.  She would invariably disappear between the displays in a store to get her shopping done. Finally someone was discreetly put “in charge” of Grandma for a period of time so we could keep track of her.

When Karen and Jim were a little older, Esther got a job as a mail clerk at the Capitol Building, a position which eventually led to a career at the Montana State Board of Equalization (now the Department of Revenue) from which she retired.  Esther is the last of five women (Grace, Laura, Rose, Elaine and Esther) who all started work there about the same time and retired together after 25 years.  They were good friends who shared life with one another through the years. 

Probably the best days of Esther’s life were spent at Goose Bay at Canyon Ferry Lake.  She loved going out with Gust in their camper to “their” spot and spending the whole weekend fishing.  These were great times spent with family and friends!  She also enjoyed hunting with Gust and Jim and was known for her ability to spot a deer or elk when no one else could find them.

Gust and Esther were charter members of the Little Red School House Association and enjoyed spending time helping with the restoration of the school and working at the annual fundraising barbeques that were held there.

Her personal appearance was always of the utmost importance to Esther.  She always looked classy, with everything matching, pressed and in good order, including shoes, purse and earrings.  She had a standing hair appointment every Friday for over 40 years.  Nothing could keep her from looking her best.  One emergency room visit waited until rouge and lipstick were in place!

Esther was preceded in death by her parents, Cyrus and Lizzie Hetland, her sisters Gladys Hetland (who died in infancy) and Norma Ellingson, her husband, Gust (1997), and her son, James (1967).   She is survived by her daughter and son-in-law, Karen and Larry Lewis and her “adopted” daughter, Anna Hoffman.  She has three grandchildren and their families:  Kellie (Peter) McBride and children Jacob Wilson and Zoe McBride; Scott (Carmen Bensink) Lewis and son, Gideon; Heather (RJ) McNeil and children Mitchell (Kassi Schmitz), Maddie, Jack and Erin; and honorary granddaughter Hilary Hoffman.  She was also blessed with step-grandchildren Kenny (Ana) McBride; Travis (Shayla) McBride (children Ruth and Roland); Aaron (Tiffany) McBride (son Oliver); and Richard Loren (Kaylee) McBride (children Kandace and Kolton).  She is also survived by dozens of Hagen, Ellingson and Eckhoff nieces and nephews, including David Ellingson, whom she thought of as a son.  

A special thank you must be given to the staff at Legacy Assisted Living for their wonderful care of Esther during the past few months.  She enjoyed her apartment at Legacy and the friends she made while living there.  We were truly blessed to have them as part of our lives.

Donations in Esther’s name may be made to the Little Red School House, c/o David Holstein, Curator, 2380 York Road, Helena, MT 59602 or to the Prickly Pear Community Fireworks Celebration, 3122 U.S. Highway 12, Helena, MT 59601

Please visit to offer a condolence to the family or to share a memory of Esther.