Helen Keffer

"That was life, so I went along with it." The words are Helen Keffer's. The message, however, is universal: What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. And today, at age 81, Helen is as strong as they come.

Yes, she resides at the Canyon Creek Guest Home, and yes, she accesses the oxygen tanks there. But she also still works, and keeps up on all the goings on around town.

When I visited with her last Friday, she greeted me with a warm smile and the point-blank question, "What do you want to know?"

I spent time learning about her propensity for landing jobs which, before she came along, women had not held. "Maybe it's because I've always had short hair," she teases. "Or maybe it's because I was the only woman willing to do outside work." Either way, she was a trendsetter.

Helen was the first woman Hines Lumber Company hired to work in the woods during the war. "I began gassing up their trucks at the barn; then I was knocking cheese blocks at the landing, and finally driving a gravel truck for road building, like the one out to Logan Valley."

She was hired by her father-in-law to work cutting the right of way for the power company. "I was out there using the cross-cut saws with the guys. It was hard work. Then we'd cut up the logs with an old mag saw."

Helen was the first woman to work in the Seneca Post Office. In those days the post office was still in the Seneca store, where you could get your mail, a meal and your diesel all in one stop. "Seems all my life folks have been asking me if I wanted to work here or work there. And I've always answered the same way, I'll try it." Could be too, she would preface that statement with an expletive as she does today. "Hell, when I worked at the store in Seneca we'd sometimes serve meals to 96 men in one day. That's when Seneca was boomin'."

There were more jobs too. She sold tickets at the theatre in Seneca, and bartended in the pool hall. She worked as a trimmer on the planer that Hudspeth built in Seneca.

Work is one thing, but caring for a family is another. All the while she was out working, she and husband Frank were caring for their only son, Mike. When Mike was eleven, he was injured in an accidental shooting which left him confined to a wheelchair. She nursed him at home and through 28 operations in Portland. She recalls one day in particular when a phone call from Portland informed her that Mike needed immediate surgery. "I went to the boss and told him I needed to go; I jumped into the car sawdust and all," remembers Helen. Mike passed away a few months before his 26th birthday in 1963. And she and husband Frank divorced three years later.

She left for Portland in 1965 to work for Commercial Service systems. "One of the best jobs in the world," she says. She would travel and shop incognito at large chain stores to check on the efficiency of clerks and managers. "You had to be very versatile person to handle that job," she recalls, adding "bar codes and scanners ruined the old system, so I came back to John Day."

For the past 20 years, Helen has continued to work hard at various jobs in Grant County. She has stayed on the cutting edge of all the happenings too. She backs up Frances Porter at the John Day Answering Service when "Frances needs to go someplace." She stays current by reading daily papers, watching TV, and listening to the scanner. She was right up to speed on several unrelated stories currently in progress.

Her life has embodied the hard-living, hard-working and hard-drinking lifestyle which is a trademark of frontier life. "I didn't have the niceties; but I was clean and had something to eat," she says.

There is profound dignity in inner strength: hard-won and well-deserved, it is a person's truest measure. And by that standard alone, Helen is still breaking ground.

1998 Roxann Gess Smith
All Rights Reserved

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