Helen Preiss was a personage in our community. Not just a personality with unique flourishes and foibles, although she had plenty of those, but she was a luminary, a celebrity, a household name.
For more than 10 years, she was probably the most famous person in Pacific — no disrespect to elected officials or old families. Everybody knew who she was. Like a famous entertainer, she was known by only one name; when anyone referred to Helen, it was clear which Helen they meant.
When she died last Saturday, Oct. 13, I was not ready to let her go. But my husband Bob said: “Just wait and see. She’s going to have one last hurrah.” He predicted an outpouring of the community at her funeral, benefiting the natural light-giving body that she was. She saw herself as the sun and the moon and she would have one more shining moment, Bob said.
But, no mistake about it, she could be a handful.
She once got so mad at me for disagreeing with her over some element of how the senior center should be run, she wanted to banish me from her sight. But when she needed a tough ally, for a point she wanted to carry, she relented and called me to her aid.
I first met Helen as part of the Pacific Kitchen Band, practicing in a passageway beside someone’s garage. It was a funky group that lived up to its name, running rasping articles across scrub boards and clanging pot lids to make music. They did actually scrape out a repertoire of songs, with Helen having more fun than any of the musicians — her laughter was part of the melody.
She knew it wasn’t serious, but she insisted on being taken seriously at whatever she did.
When she decided to build a senior center, a group of young women, the Missouri Service Organization, took her seriously enough that they gave her their year’s fundraising purse, $500. At that time, she thought she needed $300,000. In the end it was closer to $1 million.
She launched herself headlong into to three or four years of bake sales, yard sales and quilt raffles, bringing in sums like $70 or $120. The kids at Truman Elementary sold valentine candy grams and gave Helen the proceeds. I forgot what that brought in.
What I do recall is that she took every fundraising activity to heart. She wanted every dollar raised reported in the newspaper. I put Helen’s name and picture in the newspaper so many times she took on the aura of a celebrity. Her pastor would ask her to call me to report on church news.
A small boy approached her at the beauty parlor once and said, “Helen, how could I get in the newspaper like you?”
She loved her celebrity and she embraced it as part of her due. I believed in the senior center from the get go, I thought Pacific should have one and I always believed that she might pull it off.
The bigwigs weren’t taking her entirely seriously those first couple of years.
“It is a good idea,” one businessman said in a public meeting. “If it looks like it’s going to take off, I’ll make a donation.”
The only time I ever saw her nervous to talk to anyone was when she decided to go talk to Lloyd Baker, founder of Baker’s Ice, a larger than life personality and a personage in his own right. Even though he was seriously ill at the time, he told her that he already knew who she was and that she was going to have a senior center. He gave her $5,000 and challenged the Chamber of Commerce, his pet civic organization, to match the $5,000. It was the first big money she received and she was energized by it.
She asked the city for help several times. Somewhere, about the sixth year of her efforts, when she had reached the huge sum of $45,000 and construction costs had escalated, raising the projected cost far beyond her means, the city of Pacific agreed to apply for a grant. Two grants were awarded, a CDBG grant and a state tax credit grant based on donations that she had to go out and get. Eventually all the tax credits were sold.
She got at least one marriage proposal out of the deal. She knocked on the door of an elderly gentleman who she knew because she formerly drove his wife to church. His wife had died, he told her. He proposed on the spot. She didn’t want to get married, she answered. She wanted to build a senior center. When he died unexpectedly he left her senior center $70,000. Later on when his will was probated, another $50,000 was apportioned to the senior center.
She lived to see something that few individuals see in their lifetimes. A project that she had dedicated her life to came to fruition. When the senior center opened on April 15, 2007, to great fanfare, it was completely paid for.
All due respect to the Eagles, but it took a large organization of members, hundreds of barbecue benefits and more than a thousand nights of bingo to pay for that building. I think it’s still not quite paid for.
The American Legion building has a mortgage. It will take us years to pay for the beautiful new city hall.
But the senior center is completely paid for.
I have to tell you, I thought it was premature to put her name on the building while she was still living. From the time the doors opened it was more than her building; it belonged to all of us. Putting her name on it gave her an enhanced sense of ownership. She wanted to run every element of it.
When she finally learned that she would no longer be allowed to run every element of it her feelings were hurt and she stayed away.
This was not our finest hour.
Of course it was everybody’s building. It was only named for her because of her spectacular fund drive that finally got it built without a mortgage.
“All the slights and personality differences should be forgotten, now,” Bob said. “It’s time to accept the gift she left us in good spirits. It’s a time to celebrate what she left.”
The huge number of newspaper column inches devoted to her efforts revealed a high-energy individual who was not afraid to buck the odds.
At Bristol Manor she held Bible study classes and called bingo.
She was active in National Association of Federal Retirees, NARFE, and served as president of the Pacific Area chapter for a dozen years.
She was an active member of the Pacific Baptist Church, where she served as auditor and Women’s Mission Unit, WMU director.
Helen had no children, but she was aunt to the children of the late Ollie Preiss and his wife Jessie who lived nearby.
The last time I talked to her, a couple of months ago, I was walking across the dining room of Pacific Care Center in the afternoon and she was sitting at a table surrounded by a group. They were playing some kind of board game with Helen at the helm.
“What are you doing?” I asked her. “We’re playing, whatever the game was, sit down and play with us.” She swept her hand across one spot on the table as though to make room for me — and she laughed. The timbre in her laughter was the same as I recalled in her old kitchen band day.
As I walked away, I turned to wave, but she had already dismissed me. There she sat, like a picture in a children’s storybook, a lady lionheart surrounded by a pack of cubs.
I think I’ll remember her that way.
Pauline Masson can be reached at email@example.com or 314-805-9800.