Over the past few days, a vase of flowers and a photo collage have occupied a table in the bustling seating area at Bernice’s Bakery. They’re there to commemorate Esther Chessin—a mother, community member and former owner of Bernice’s—who died Sept. 5
at St. Patrick Hospital. She was 52.
Ask anyone who knew her and you’ll hear stories of a smart, engaging and community-minded businesswoman. Some of the stories are simple and familiar, fond remembrances of weddings and backyard barbecues. Others encapsulate more trying times, namely Chessin’s battle with a cancer that twice went into remission. That she had a sizable impact on Missoula was evident, her friend Cindy Waltz says, even on hikes up Pattee Canyon or Mount Sentinel.
Courtesy Molly Bradford
Esther Chessin, pictured here at her friend Molly Bradford's wedding.
“She almost always knew somebody that we passed,” Waltz remembers. “She had a really wide reach, and part of that is growing up in Missoula. A big part of that was Bernice’s, though.”
Chessin bought Bernice’s from founder Becky Bolinger in 1993, and during her 11-year tenure as owner, she more than doubled the size of the space and established the popular seating area. It was in her capacity as the bakery’s owner that Chessin first got to know Christine and Marco Littig, who at the time owned the Red Bird wine bar and frequented Bernice’s for coffee and scones. They connected as peers and “acquaintance friends,” Christine says, and when the Littigs sold Red Bird, they wound up going to work for Chessin at the bakery. Christine recalls Chessin asking them to buy Bernice’s from her “no less than five times.” The fifth time, it worked. Chessin passed the business into the Littigs’ hands in 2004 (the Littigs turned Bernice’s over to new owner Missy Kelleher this summer).
“I don’t think she ever received enough credit for what she did to Bernice’s before Marco and I took over,” Christine says. “We elevated the face of Bernice’s, but she built it.”
Looking around the bakery, Christine adds that nothing aesthetically has changed since Chessin expanded. Chessin gave Missoula “a great gift,” Christine continues: a place to gather together and share tables with friends and strangers, “and eat a pastry on the side.”
Chessin also worked for the Independent
as a business manager in spring and summer of 2007, then as an administrative assistant through January 2008. Former Indy
owner and publisher Matt Gibson remembers her fondly as well. “Fundamentally, she was a gentle and kind soul,” he says.
is also how Chessin came into Molly Bradford’s orbit. Bernice’s was a longtime advertiser in the paper’s pages, and when Bradford started as an ad representative at the paper, Chessin became her client. In Bradford’s words, the two “just clicked.”
“When I first met her, I was like, ‘Are you Bernice?’” Bradford says. “She was like, ‘No, Bernice doesn’t exist. I’m Esther.’ We would laugh about who’s Bernice. We really bonded, and it extended outside of work. We would hike or go to musical events. She came to my wedding. I hosted her baby shower.”
Chessin’s death this week appeared, to many of her friends, sudden. Waltz says Chessin had begun cancer treatments again early this summer, and that she’d become ill Tuesday morning before being rushed to the emergency room. She died in the hospital that afternoon. Throughout her treatment this summer, and in previous years, Waltz says, Chessin “really didn’t make a big deal of it.” She was active in Missoula's Silver Linings breast cancer support group, in addition to her work as an area manager for the international skincare and wellness company Arbonne.
“She kind of just took it in stride,” Waltz says of Chessin’s battle with cancer. “I don’t think she wanted to give it a lot of energy. She didn’t want it to be the focus of her life.”
Over the past few days, Bradford and others have worked to set up a benefit fund for Chessin’s 13-year-old daughter, Isabella, at Missoula Federal Credit Union. Chessin’s friends are also planning a community celebration for Chessin on Oct. 1. We'll share the details of that event when they're confirmed.
"I'm sure everyone has said probably what I'm going to say," says Laina Wustner, Chessin's niece, "but she was just probably the most powerful force of love and life and strength, and she was not only a warrior against battling cancer but she just was a phenomenal warrior of life."