Fund Highlight

Bob and Tomi Rickels: A Legacy of Faith, Art, and Adventure

February 16, 2024

Bob Rickels: teacher, artist, musician, traveler, outdoorsman, devout Lutheran, unequaled father, husband, and friend, Bob Rickels was a very special, inspiring man.

Bob's higher education included attending the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and two summers at the newly formed Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, Montana. He earned his Master of Fine Arts from UM (Missoula) in art and sculpture.

Most of Bob's teaching career was spent as an Art Education, Studio Art and Art History professor at Concordia College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

He had a lifetime of family connections and a deep love for Montana. His family returned to Billings when he retired, where Bob was well-known for his volunteer service and cheerful, good-humored, and kindly presence as a docent of the Yellowstone Art Museum. Bob was honored by the museum as Docent of the Year in 2008, and was recognized again in 2018 “For many years of outstanding service.”

Throughout his adult life, Bob engaged in studio activities involving ceramics, drawing, silver, woodcut, collage, and mosaic. He participated in exhibits and art fairs, installed several commissioned works, and displayed and sold his handmade sterling silver jewelry in several local museums and galleries, exhibiting a final show of his newer ceramic creations in Billings in 2013.

Bob was shaped by his love of the beauty and majesty of the natural world, which also informed his art. He once wrote, “Rugged mountain peaks against intensely blue sky; rushing white water streams frothing at their feet; serene lakes reflecting forest flowers--these are my sources of inspiration and motivation for sculpture and jewelry.”

Bob and Tomi loved outdoor recreation, especially hiking, but also backpacking, fishing in earlier days, canoeing, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing.

Tomi (Thelma) grew up in Saskatchewan, Canada, where she was a star athlete in speedskating and for her many wins (and a record!) in track and field. She was particularly accomplished in sprinting, broad jump, and relay.

Tomi was a Wireless Instructor during World War II. During this time, she was also a top track competitor, but the wartime cancellation of the 1944 Olympics meant she didn’t get to compete internationally. Nevertheless, in October 1947, an Alberta newspaper spoke of her as “the most talked about Canadian girl athlete of early war years.”

She spent most of her early career in Physical Education. While teaching in Newfoundland, Tomi earned a Master’s degree in Health Education and met her future husband, Bob, also pursuing a Master’s of Fine Arts (in studio art) at summer school at UM in Missoula in 1959. They were married in 1965.

Tomi taught at McAlister College in St. Paul, before choosing to devote herself to raising their rambunctious but adoring kids. As they entered school she started a preschool at Christ Church Lutheran, where the family belonged. She was much loved and appreciated throughout the 17 years she ran the school.

After Tomi and Bob retired, they returned permanently to Montana, to be closer to the Beartooth Mountains they and their kids loved, where they could canoe, hike, and backpack, and enjoy family and friends.

Tomi defied so much of what was expected of - and allowed to - women in the era in which she lived. She outran and outcompeted the boys (and girls!); she bravely struck her own path; she was the first in her family to achieve academic degrees and successes; and she was admired by those around her for her charm, integrity, independence, poise, intelligence, determination, equanimity and elegance.

Bob and Tomi made the world a better place in so many ways: they were kind, good, loving people who gave of themselves and gave encouragement and acceptance to others throughout their professional and personal lives. They expressed gratitude and humility, they kept light hearts and they spoke loving words. Their lives were a testament to embracing the richness and beauty of this amazing world.