The Obit For Cliff Neighbors

Clifford Clarence Neighbors

The Missoulian
Friday, June 17, 2011

HARLOWTON - Surrounded by family, Cliff Neighbors, the "Old Pro," died peacefully at his home in Harlowton of natural causes on Tuesday, June 14, 2011. He was 96.

Cliff was born April 13, 1915, in Mercer County, Mo., one of six children to Clarence and Effie Neighbors. The farming life led the family to Oklahoma, where he attended high school in Fargo; the Great Depression led him to Montana, where as a 15-year-old he spent a summer harvesting apples in the Flathead Valley.

An excellent athlete, Cliff began playing baseball professionally in the Midwest and was a minor league pitcher from 1936-39, pitching in Texas towns like Midland and Eldorado, as well as Hobbs, N.M., Lafayette, La., and Pocatello, Idaho. He threw in the farm systems of both the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals.

It was during a 1938 exhibition game in Big Springs, Texas, that he suffered an elbow injury. By then he'd shown a strong if erratic arm: He had more strikeouts than innings pitched, but he also had more walks.

His professional baseball career apparently over, Cliff came back to Montana, where he'd been struck by the mountains and fishing. He landed at the smelter in East Helena and played baseball in the Copper League. Soon his team barnstormed through Harlowton.

Except for three years working in Lewistown and another three in the Navy, he didn't leave Harlo. After the game he was offered a spot on the local team and a job at a local service station. Making the offer was Fritz Cosgriffe. It was shortly after that Cliff met Fritz's niece Mary, and the two were married from Sept. 5, 1941, until Mary passed away Oct. 19, 1980.

The pair raised two boys and four girls. The two oldest children, Cliff Jr. (or "Pitch") and Nancy, were born during World War II, after their father enlisted in the Navy in February 1942. Cliff was stationed in Norman, Okla., where he became an aviation machinist's mate first class. He was later transferred to Alameda, Calif.

An untimely firing of a .50-caliber machine gun damaged his hearing and he never saw combat. He still saw action on the baseball diamond, however, and upon his discharge - on Oct. 14, 1945 - teammate Bill Rigney invited him to attend spring training with Sacramento of the Pacific Coast League.

Having had machinist's and electrician's training, Cliff instead came back to Harlowton. He worked as a mechanic and in radio repair until 1956, when he took a job with Montana Power Co. He left MPC in 1967 to work at Wheatland Memorial Hospital while getting certified as a maintenance inspector and steam engineer.

In 1974, he headed to Colstrip to help build the third and fourth coal-generated power plants. He counts that and his baseball exploits among his proudest accomplishments, but there are many others.

An accomplished harmonica player, he sang on the radio with his brothers as a youth and competed in and won state music festivals in high school.

Shortly before he died Cliff was able to get a patent on an invention he'd tinkered with for decades - a magnetic motor. He was a member of the American Legion for more than 60 years.

He brought home several massive paddlefish from the Missouri Breaks and one large black bear from the Big Elk in the Crazy Mountains. He was an unabashed fan of Canada geese and also their enemy.

Cliff played basketball against the Globetrotters and after a narrow loss was sought out for a handshake by the legendary Goose Tatum. While in the Navy, he played outfield against, and was victimized by, Stan Musial. He hit home runs at what was then Cobb Field in Billings while playing in the Midland Empire League.

As a member of Harlowton's school board, he was instrumental in getting lights installed at the Engineers' football venue, McQuitty Field. He often volunteered to help young pitchers at Harlowton's baseball diamond.

Cliff is survived by four daughters, Nancy (Sam) Widdicombe, Nadine, Noreen (Jeff) Kinnick and Diane (Bob) Jones; as well as one son, Fritz; and 22 grandchildren, Leah Lindsay, Jason Neighbors, Danny Neighbors and Dawn Freeman; Kim Olson, Mary Harrison, Judy Ivory, Sam Widdicombe and Randy Widdicombe; Mark Otto, Peggy Racicot and Derek Oberg; Sarah Dye, Annie Lester, Becky McAllister and Camas Teague; and Jennifer Perkins, Chris Hess, Adam Jones, Ashley Henigman, Amy Moore and Allison Jones.

He also leaves behind one brother, C.H.; 38 great-grandchildren; and two great-great-grandchildren.

Preceding him in death were his wife, Mary; son, Cliff; sister, Alda Johnson; and brothers, Jimmy, Johnny and Ardeen.

Cliff was an avid hunter and fisherman, and fished up until a few months before his death. His entire life was filled with music and song. He was also a poet, and wrote "Back to Montana":

By a sweet running stream

Will I lay down to dream

And to count the bright stars in the sky

Where the sounds of the breeze

Will lull me to sleep by and by

There is dear God and my friends

There is a home with its land

Alert and at watch to reclaim me

Where the evergreens swing

And the meadow larks sing

To abate and to cure all that ails me

Yes Montana is calling me home

To those hills rolling on like the sea

And 'neath these bright western skies

Will I lay down to die

When the pages of time do enfold me

Cliff will be missed by many, including his great friend and fellow fisherman Tony Hensel.

Services are at 5 p.m. Sunday in Harlowton at Perkins Funeral Chapel. Reception will follow at the Harlowton Youth Center. Memorials may be made to the Veterans Memorial Wall Fund, P.O. Box 658, Harlowton, MT 59036.