Impact of Giving: Shirley E. Voyta

A Teacher’s Heart

On January 5, 2016, Shirley Easton Voyta passed away at age 104. She generously named the MSU Billings Foundation as one of the beneficiaries to an irrevocable trust. With a portion of her gift, the MSU Billings Foundation Board of Trustees established the Shirley E. Voyta Memorial Scholarship Endowment so future MSU Billings education majors would benefit from Shirley’s passion for education and desire to help students.

Shirley was born on November 22, 1911, in Fayette, N.D. In 1918, Shirley moved to Montana with her parents and two sisters, and attended high school in Fromberg. Like many of today’s students, location and programs available governed Shirley’s higher education decisions.

“Shirley chose Eastern Montana College because it was a college that majored in teaching education for a degree, and also because her home was in Billings,” explained Shirley’s niece, Willeen Erpenbach.

In 1935, Shirley earned her education degree from EMC and began a 35-year career in elementary education. Thirteen years into teaching, Shirley returned to her roots to teach at Eastern (Montana College) Elementary School. While teaching at the on-campus school, she enrolled to earn her master’s degree in reading.

“Shirley had a strong ethic to mentor and teach students how to teach. She had many student teachers over the years, many of whom she kept contact with,” said Erpenbach. “Shirley was always up for a challenge.”

Shirley was a charter member of XI Chapter of the Delta Kappa Gamma Society International and a longtime member of the Yellowstone Valley Retired Educators. As one of the original members of the MSU Billings Foundation’s McMullen Golden Years Scholarship Selection Committee, Shirley served on the committee from 1986 to 2012. Still sharp in mind and living in her own home, Shirley took pride in being able to serve on the scholarship committee at 100 years old.

“Shirley supported MSU Billings because of her strong belief in education as a way to combat poverty, ignorance and foster a better way of life for those who chose to utilize it,” said Erpenbach. “Shirley was a person that, if you were her friend, you were her friend for life! She had friends from children on up to those who were her age. She always knew her neighbors, and they knew her and cared about her. She was very accepting of you no matter whom you were or whatever stage of life you were in. But she always would be quick to help you better yourself or encourage you.”

Over their 36 years of marriage, she and her husband, Joe, traveled to almost all of the 50 states in search of places and pictures to augment her teaching. Shirley was a devoted family person and was close to her brothers and sisters whom she outlived. She loved children, especially preschoolers.

“She never had children of her own, but all her students were ‘her children,’” recalled Erpenbach. “Shirley was especially proud of her great-great-great niece, Sienna, who is now three and half.”

True to her teacher’s heart, Shirley lived to see the joy of discovery brighten another’s eyes, be they a small child grasping their first letters or student teachers preparing for their own classrooms. Her gift assures that generations of learners will have access to education. The first scholarship will be awarded in academic year 2017-2018.

To leave a legacy for generations of students, please contact the MSU Billings Foundation at 406.657.2244, 888.430.6782, or


Shirley E. Voyta