Friends, family celebrate Emma Lommasson’s elegant, illustrious life and dedication to UM

Sandra Lommasson, 70 and Emma Lommasson’s oldest grandchild, spoke about her grandmother’s legacy and her persistent love of learning. (Renata Birkenbuel/Missoula Current)

It’s not very often that a math professor steals the show. But chances are high that math wizard Emma Bravo Lommasson would have greatly approved.

Mark Kayll, who has taught math at the University of Montana for 25 years, spun off a few charming math jokes at Tuesday’s celebration of life for the late Emma Lommasson, who died Dec. 1 at the age of 107.

Once figuring he’d charm her with a clever math trick, Kayll invited Emma to lunch on Nov. 22, 2014 – when he turned exactly half her age, 104, at the time.

As the lunch date approached, she “sleuthed” out his phone number, called and put him off, worrying that traffic would be too bad that day to dine out. It took Kayll a while to pinpoint the real reason she stalled.

“The Bobcat-Griz game was scheduled for that day, so we moved it back two days,” said Kayll, to the laughter of a mostly white-haired audience at the University Center Ballroom on Tuesday afternoon. “She didn’t care about the traffic. She just wanted to watch the game.”

How could he forget that Emma was the biggest Griz fan on the planet? 

On Feb. 15, 2018, UM President Seth Bodnar followed in the footsteps of his predecessors by meeting one of the University’s treasures, Emma B. Lommasson ’33 M.S. ’39, who at 106 is likely UM’s oldest alumna. (Montanan.umt.edu)

Across the span of 19 UM presidents, she was the longest-serving alumna, a devoted Griz fan and one of Missoula’s oldest residents. 

Kayll wrenched a few hearts in the audience when he said upon waking on Tuesday and prepping for her celebration of life, one of his first thoughts was doing something for Emma.

“Who’s going to drive Emma to this event?” he told himself. “The contradictions that enter our minds when our friends and loved ones pass. But I know Emma would want me to start this occasion with a math problem.”

Fervent, long-time and short-time friends filled most of the seats at the celebration on Tuesday. Emma’s closest friends and seven family members joined the UM community in remembering the long-time registrar, student advisor, teacher, mentor, administrator and one-time student for whom the Emma B. Lommasson Center was named.

Sandra Lommasson

Her oldest granddaughter, Sandra Lommasson of Sacramento, California, said her grandmother was truly one of a kind. 

“She was sort of an Auntie Mame – but with dignity. Vibrant, alive, connected and very inquisitive,” said Sandra. 

“There was something about the very daring and being of her that it never occurred to us to call her ‘Grandma.’ She was ‘Emma.’”

Classy and always dressed to the hilt, Emma was a beauty and a loyal advocate for students over decades in the UM Career Center. Even in retirement, she volunteered her advising wizardry for another 10 years.

So many times, Emma credited students with keeping her young. Eventually, in 2001, former UM President George Dennison approved the naming of the Emma B. Lommasson Center, where she counseled generations of students and veterans. 

Sandra, the only grandchild of four born in Missoula, and her family spent much time with their grandmother over the years. In her later years, Emma blew off suggestions to use a walker and replace her signature heels with more stable flat shoes – and the grandchildren did not argue.

After many birthday parties in recent years celebrating her entry into three digits, friends like Kayll marveled at Emma’s large following – and knack for lifting those around her.

“There were about 100 people in the receiving line in this ballroom for her 100th birthday,” he said. “I wanted to honor her, but she made me feel as if I were the most important person in the room.”

Jax Hassler performs “Ideale” by Paolo Tosti.

Friends remembered Emma’s growing up years in Sand Coulee and Centerville, in an Italian working-class family. They basked in UM voice performance major Jax Hassler’s exquisite solo “Ideale” by Paolo Tosti, paying homage to her immigrant heritage. UM School of Music graduate Luke Larson accompanied Hassler on piano. 

A natural math teacher, Emma earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees at UM, where she also taught math. She worked in the Registrar’s Office for 31 of her 40 years at UM and retired in 1977. 

The university offers a $1,000 scholarship in her name, which friends said gave her great joy. 

“That scholarship meant the world to her,” said Martin Burke, celebration of life host. “Emma said, ‘I came to the university without a nickel. I don’t know if anybody at the university was as poor as I. My parents had to give up a lot to give me $30 a month so I could go to school. I vowed that if ever had money, I’d give it to scholarships for deserving Montana graduates. If I could, I would give every needy student a $1,000 scholarship each year.’” 

Many at the celebration of life included Emma’s peers, members of the Philanthropic Educational Organization. A50-year member of the PEO Missoula chapter, she was the oldest member before she passed. 

The organization was right in Emma’s wheelhouse, as PEO celebrates the advancement of women, helps educate women via scholarships, grants, awards and loans – and motivates women to achieve their highest aspirations, exactly as Emma did for so many.  

Sheila Stearns, former UM interim president who first met Emma while an undergrad in the 1960s, will give the eulogy at Emma’s funeral mass on Wednesday, Dec. 18, at 3 p.m. at Christ the King Church in Missoula. The public is welcome.

The classy life celebration, complete with Emma’s favorite carrot cake afterward, “reflected the grace and excellence of Emma,” said Stearns. “It was an elegant event. She would have loved it.”

Contract Reporter Renata Birkenbuel at 406-565-0013 and renatab@missoulacurrent.com.