Community mourning loss of tireless volunteer, genealogist, historian

Former Howell Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Lee Reeves and Pam Rietsch at a Fantasy of Lights parade.Pam Rietsch — a founder of the Fantasy of Lights Parade and the Michigan Challenge Balloonfest, a historian and genealogist, and the self-titled “Hostess with the Mostess” former Welcome Wagon Lady — died Sunday at her home in Howell. She was 71.

“Pam put her heart into everything she did,” said Lee Reeves, former executive director of the Howell Area Chamber of Commerce. “I could always count on her to come through on her promises, and there were many. When it came to her community, she was a tireless supporter.”

A lifetime member of the Howell Area Chamber of Commerce, Rietsch was a face familiar to chamber members and community volunteers. She was also a legendary historian and genealogist. After being given a web tutorial by a nephew in 1996, she went on to upload over 30,000 pages to, and photograph more than 40,000 tombstones as she pursued her goal of documenting every single one in every single Livingston County cemetery and posting them online. She also collected historic maps and information, and posted them to

She made her research work available to anyone doing historic or genealogical research for free.

“Pam was tireless,” said Pat Convery, retired president of the Howell Area Chamber of Commerce. “She was one of the first chamber member volunteers that I met when I joined the chamber in 1990, when my job was to manage the balloonfest. Pam brought me up to speed and helped me learn about ballooning and special events.”

Former Howell Area Chamber of Commerce President Pat Convery, left, and Michigan Challenge Balloonfest Manager Michelle Tokan, right, pose with Pam Rietsch, center, after presenting her with a collection of commemorative pins from the balloonfest.

Despite suffering spinal injuries and facial paralysis, Rietsch was unstoppable as a chamber and community volunteer.

“I have had multiple illnesses since ’91,” Rietsch said for a 2004 profile of her in the Livingston County Press. “And there’s been two horrendous car wrecks in that period of time.”

As she recovered from her injuries and health challenges, she said it was her research work and community volunteering that helped.

“I just needed something to keep focused, and keep me going,” she said.

“Community was very important to her,” said Michelle Tokan, who manages the Fantasy of Lights and the Michigan Challenge Balloonfest. “We are so grateful for her service and dedication.”

Rietsch was the Howell chamber’s first Volunteer of the Year, and she enjoyed the honor of being a life member of the organization. She said in 1997 that one of the biggest accolades she ever received was when former Livingston County Press editor Dennis Keenon wrote about her as one of three Livingston County’s “movers and shakers” in 1984 — along with former Livingston County Commissioner Jack LaBelle and Howell real estate agent Sally Witt.

“It just blew me away,” she said.

A graduate of St. Mary’s High School in Detroit, and a graduate of Henry Ford Community College, she was married nearly 47 years to her husband, Don, often referred to himself as “Mr. Pam Rietsch.” A member of Heart of the Shepherd Lutheran Church, she also enjoyed quilting and crocheting, and was the proud owner of Norwegian Elkhounds.

A memorial service in honor and celebration of her life will be held at a later date.

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