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A Lakota Woman with the Gift of Gab

The art of writing an obituary has diminished in many newspapers along with the many jobs that used to fill the desks in the newsroom. Writing an obit is still an art in many small Indian newspapers.
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Her obituary was just a small footnote in the Rapid City (SD) Journal last week. Writing obits used to be the first job of many aspiring journalists. In order to see if they could write with any sort of flair the editor assigned them to a desk and told them to write the obits of the unknown and the well known departed.

But like so many things that have changed in these days of high technology, the art of writing an obituary has diminished in many newspapers along with the many jobs that used to fill the desks in the newsroom. Writing an obit is still an art in many small Indian newspapers.

Her obit in the city daily never said it, but Helen Felix had many friends and in the field of selling newspaper advertising, she had no peer. Her sales capabilities were legendary in Indian country. She had that special gift of gab.

I first noticed Helen when I walked through the inserting department of my weekly newspaper, Indian Country Today, many years ago. She always greeted me in the Lakota language and I noticed that she always had everyone working around her in a state of laughter. She was working part time as a single mother to support her young family. Born and raised on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota she had moved to Rapid City to get a job and ended up at Indian Country Today inserting flyers.

Her happy attitude rubbed off on everyone in the inserting department and it wasn't too long before I moved her into the advertising sales department. I had created a new insert that I called "Hitting the Pow Wow Circuit." It was going to be a tabloid that listed all of the Indian pow wows across America. I figured Helen would be the ideal person to kick off this new venture because she seemed to know everyone in Indian country. Although she had never been in sales in her life she took to selling for the pow wow tab like a duck to water.

Before I knew it, as the deadline for printing approached, "Hitting the Pow Wow Circuit" was 60 pages long and it was 75 percent advertising. Ms. Felix had sold nearly all of that advertising and my creation, the pow wow tab, became an annual staple of Indian Country Today.

Helen met a fine man named Charlie Baca. He was an ex-marine that had seen some pretty tough action in Vietnam. She asked me if I would be her surrogate father and give her away at her wedding. I did her one better and we held her wedding in the newsroom of Indian Country Today. All of the staff of the newspaper plus most of her family was there to celebrate her special day. On that day she became Helen Felix Baca.

Every March Helen and Charlie would load up their van with our newspaper and special editions and they would head to the Denver March Pow Wow, the first big pow wow of the season. They would set up our booth and Charlie would wear his ball cap with Marine Corps logo and the Vietnam ribbons on the crown and between the two of them, they would sell many subscriptions and newspapers, enough to cover all of their expenses and they would bring back a profit for the newspaper.

Charlie became ill one day and after a visit to the VA Hospital at Fort Meade, SD, he was told that he had lung cancer. He blamed it on the Agent Orange that had covered his body on so many occasions in Vietnam. Charlie didn't make it. He died not long after his diagnosis.

He was the love of Helen's life and his death devastated her. It seemed to me that the cheerfulness had gone out of her life. I sold the newspaper in 1998 and the buyer, the Oneida Nation, terminated most of the employees and moved the paper to Verona, New York. Helen was one of the employees that lost her job.

Rapid City is not a very large town and I ran into Helen now and then. She was still struggling to support her growing children and she was suffering from diabetes, a disease that is epidemic in Indian country. She always gave me a warm embrace and spoke to me in Lakota. Her smile was still there, but just vaguely.

The disease finally claimed her life last week. She was only 54 years old.

I stopped by the funeral home at visitation time. She was lying in her casket with a pillow she always took to the Denver March Pow Wow. It was a pillow with the symbol of the United States Marine Corps embroidered on it. It was as if she had Charlie lying beside her.