Steamboat Springs — Helen “Dee” Richards never imagined herself a journalist until the day Steamboat Pilot publisher Chuck Leckenby thrust an old Graflex camera into her hands. Her new boss suggested it would be a good idea to hustle across town and snap a picture of the high school principal’s home before it burned to the ground.
“I rushed over there, fell on the ice and the camera shattered,” Richards recalled with a laugh.
Richards’ conversion to journalism wasn’t quite that abrupt, but almost. After her husband left her with five children, she had to fend for herself and worked a series of office jobs. Her work took her from the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, to the local selective service office during the Vietnam War, to the chamber of commerce.
When Leckenby called her, Richards recalls her initial reaction was “no, no, no. I wouldn’t have any idea what to do.”
Leckenby, whose grandfather, Charles, first went to work for the paper here in 1889, persuaded her to stop by and talk it over.
“I saw those two beautiful roll-top desks in the office and he offered me $300 a month,” Richards said.
That was enough to seal the deal and Richards went to work at the newspaper in 1965.
Richards’ indoctrination was as intense as it was brief.
“Just go out and get the news,” Leckenby advised. “You know everyone in town.”
Richards set out to become the best country editor she could be, and before her journalism career was over, she had gained the respect of her peers in Colorado, and her network of professional contacts literally spanned the globe.
“To me, Dee was the heart and soul of the Pilot,” former reporter Christine McKelvie said.
She had natural instincts for newsgathering and never shied away from a tough story or a potentially intimidating personality, McKelvie said.
At the same time, she showed her staff a tender side, creating an atmosphere that resembled a big family. She hosted an annual potluck dinner based around a hotly contested volleyball match, and many holiday parties.
“Dee was very accepting of individuals and she didn’t acknowledge a generation barrier,” McKelvie said. “She was encouraging to a generation of journalists that worked here and I have great memories of our times working together.”
Dee Richards was born in Portland, Ore., where her father, James Dunn, managed Mannings Tea and Coffee Company. He was a graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio, where he was a football star. It was there that he fell in love with Richards’ mother, Sally, a physical education major.
Dunn accepted a job transfer and moved his family to the San Francisco Bay Area. Although the family lived in Burlingame, Richards attended high school in Berkley.
“I could still sing the Berkley High fight song,” she boasts, but quickly backs down when a visitor calls her bluff.
Instead she tells of attending high school football games in San Francisco, where the goalpost was so close to a precipitous hill that a successful field goal might result in the pigskin rolling all the way to the Embarcadero.
Richards has fond memories of taking the train to Oakland and then a ferry across the bay to San Francisco. This was usually a formal occasion that required wearing a proper hat and white gloves. Other times, the family took the ferry to picnic at Stinson’s Beach.
However, Richards’ favorite coming of age story involves driving a Buick roadster across the Golden Gate Bridge on May 28, 1937, the day that it opened.
James Dunn later moved his family to Los Angeles, where he ran a well-known restaurant. But it was an upsetting change for Richards. Her senior year in high school was thoroughly disrupted when she matriculated at Pasadena Junior College (which included a high school).
“It was so different from Northern California and I was so lonely,” Richards recalled. “I’ve never liked Southern California. I just wanted to get away.”
Oberlin, where she majored in art history, proved to be Richards’ refuge.
She met Hugh Richards at Oberlin, became engaged and followed him to the University of Rochester Medical School. They made subsequent moves to Pennsylvania, Tennessee, St. Louis, Mo., and finally Estes Park.
Richards saw signs that her marriage was deteriorating while the family lived in Estes Park, but she moved to Steamboat with her husband in the fall of 1950. When he left her, Richards had to find a way to support five children, the youngest a developmentally disabled infant. She went to work as the secretary of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club at a salary of $100 a month. Fortunately, her pay was later doubled. She stayed at Howelsen Hill for seven years.
“I was having a great time,” Richards said, shaking her head. “My children were all having broken bones and I was living at the poverty level.”
When Richards went to work for the chamber as its secretary, she was the only staffer.
Once she embraced her new role with the newspaper, Richards refused to shrink from any task. She was widely recognized as the diminutive reporter who would walk into the middle of the rodeo arena during the middle of bareback bronc riding competitions in order to coax a Polaroid from the clunky old Graflex.
“I guess I figured, ‘I have this camera in front of me — I’m safe,'” Richards shrugged.
As Richards grew more comfortable in her role, she began to write feisty editorials that took local government and community institutions to task. In that role, she became the conscience of Steamboat Springs. Some of the targets of her criticism couldn’t handle it, others grew to admire her principles, her courage and her intellect.
“She was fearless in expressing her opinion (on the editorial page) and it was her belief the editor was not there to win a popularity contest,” McKelvie said. “She felt she had a strong responsibility to tell the community what it needed to know.”
During the early 1980s, Richards discovered an organization that would change her life. The International Society of Newspaper Editors together with the China/U.S. Friendship Society put together an opportunity for 12 journalists to see China in a way that few Westerners do. Richards couldn’t resist.
The group stayed in Chiang Kai-Shek’s summer palace and had audiences with high-ranking government officials.
“I loved China, but I was naÃive about what was going on in the world.”
One of the people she met with was a newspaper editor in Beijing who had survived exile to a work farm because of his unpopular views.
Richards’ taste for exotic travel was never sated, but she never took what one might call a traditional vacation abroad.
Instead, she visited Nicaragua and El Salvador at a time when soldiers in El Salvador were kidnapping and murdering foreign nationals. Richards traveled to South Africa when violence over apartheid was at its worst, she went to East Berlin before the wall came down. Richards has traveled through the Middle East and to Poland and the former Yugoslavia.
While in Jordan, she met with the late King Hussein. An anticipated meeting with Yassir Arafat fell through, but the PLO’s ambassador stood in for him. In Austria, she met with both the president and the prime minister.
“Every trip I’ve taken, we had access to heads of state,” she said.
During her travels she also developed a skeptical view of U.S. foreign policy based on her visits to American embassies in foreign lands. Richards believes diplomatic officials fed her groups disingenuous information.
A major change in Richards’ professional life led to her biggest adventure of all. After Leckenby sold the Pilot to a media company owned by Jack Kent Cooke in 1988, Richards was asked to lay off a significant number of employees to whom she felt great loyalty.
“I grew depressed over changes at the newspaper,” Richards said. “I always thought I’d live and die there, but it wasn’t to be.”
Richards left the Pilot in 1990 after 26 years with the newspaper. At that point, her oldest son, Hugh “Dick” Richards, urged her to consider volunteering for the Peace Corps.
At first, Richards rejected the notion, and when she had a change of heart, the Peace Corps rejected her. They said she didn’t have any applicable skills. Richards began traveling to Walden one night a week to teach English as a Second Language, a role she enjoyed immensely.
The teaching position also caught the attention of the Peace Corps, and at the age of 70, she was offered a position in Poland. At the last minute, she was abruptly informed there had been a change of plans — she was on her way to Sri Lanka.
Richards found herself in a predominantly Buddhist country, where the culture seemed to revolve around the preparation and consumption of a continual series of meals and formal teas.
“You ate with your fingers — the right hand only,” Richards recalled. “Everything was cooked in coconut milk with lots of red peppers. The women would rise at 3 a.m. to begin fixing breakfast, but everybody ate in about three minutes. Then, at 6 a.m., tea was served.”
Richards taught English to schoolchildren, in part, by teaching them American folk songs. The students loved to sing “Jingle Bells” and “Clementine” over and over, she laughed.
When Richards finally returned to Steamboat, she had lost 30 pounds and needed to reconnect with the community. She went to work for the County Planning Department, and today, works at a ticket window at the Steamboat Ski Area.
Lynn Kramer is Richards’ longtime neighbor. On the surface, their friendship is based on decades spent cross-country skiing and hiking in the mountains surrounding Steamboat Springs. The real heart of their relationship is the ability to confide in one another thoughts they might not even share with their families.
“I remember the first time I met her,” Kramer said. “I was caretaking the house next door and I was mowing the lawn. She came out to tell me I had been mowing about 15 feet of her property.”
Richards took it as an incursion on her sacred ground, but the two overcame the tense moment and became fast friends
“We’ve had our ups and downs,” Kramer said. Most of the downs would come after the two had a conversation on local events and Kramer picked up the Steamboat Pilot on Thursday to find, much to his surprise, that he’d been quoted in an article. Kramer quickly learned to ask his companion if she was wearing her friend’s hat or her reporter’s hat, and whether they were on the record or not.
Together with Lynn’s wife Nancy, Gary and Catherine Lykken and George Barnett, they made up an informal group they named “The Tawdry Tourers.” All winter, without fail, they headed for the hills on Sundays (usually the West Summit of Rabbit Ears Pass) to go skiing. In summers, the same group would often take several days to travel to Northern New Mexico for the Santa Fe Opera.
When summer came around, the group failed to stick to its weekly constitutional. But Kramer and Richards have always enjoyed long hikes together.
“The longest was one time, when we set out to hike to Mount Zirkel,” Kramer recalled. They were joined on their hike by Bob Moore and were within striking distance of the peak when they reached a bench above Red Dirt Pass. However, Richards and Moore were growing increasingly nervous because of a thunderstorm bubbling up toward them from below.
“I wanted to press on, but they insisted on turning back,” Kramer recalled. “When we got back to Red Dirt Pass everything below us was white with hail.”
Upon reaching the fork in the trail where returning hikers either head downhill to Gold Lake, or turn and climb a steep set of switchbacks to Gilpin Lake, Moore announced he had never seen Gilpin and talked them into hiking the extra 1.5 miles on the return leg.
It was a weary group that returned to the car 12 hours after it had set out, Kramer said.
Richards’ enthusiasm for the mountains surrounding Steamboat Springs is matched by her devotion to the community, McKelvie said.
She is the author of a book, “Steamboat Round the Bend,” which is a valuable resource for anyone eager to understand the first 100 years of the town’s existence.
“She has always been dedicated to the legacy and the future of our community,” McKelvie said.
“She knows what a special and unique place Steamboat is, and she has given a lot of herself to the community.”
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