Tom Ross' column appears Tuesdays and Saturdays in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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Picture a tiny woman in white canvas tennis shoes boldly stepping into a rodeo arena wielding an antique camera with a waist-level viewfinder. That was Dee Richards.
She didn't mind risking life and limb to get a decent photograph of a bucking bronc for the newspaper. Nor did she care even one whit who it was who thought she should have remained sitting on the arena fence - both in the literal and figurative senses of the expression.
Helen "Dee" Richards, the epitome of the country editor, Rocky Mountain style, died at half past noon on Sunday. She was 86. Write the headline.
From the perspective of a young reporter, Dee was at once a bulldog of an editor and a concerned mom who knew when to show up in the newsroom with freshly-baked cookies. The young reporters were all there to be mothered, then kicked back into the fray. Most of them stayed in her basement guest bedroom when they were new to town, and left the nest after finding their wings.
Dee died peacefully at the Doak Walker Care Center, with faithful friend and former colleague Sheri Steiner holding her hand. As Dee told me on Valentine's Day, she was ready to go.
Never mind that most of the rest of us weren't ready for her to go, I'm not sure she would appreciate us spending a great deal of time wallowing in our grief.
"Don't you have any work to do?" I can hear her ask from the great beyond.
If you weren't working hard, then you ought to be doing for others, or at least playing hard. That was Dee's approach to life.
Dee didn't have it easy for much of her life in Steamboat Springs. She moved here in the autumn of 1950, when this was still something of a frontier outpost. Her husband left her to raise five children - including an infant with a developmental disability - on her own. I can't say for certain, but I'll bet Dee spent about 60 seconds feeling sorry for herself.
She went to work at the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club and liked to joke that she earned almost enough to pay the medical costs associated with her brood's skiing injuries.
Pilot publisher Chuck Leckenby recognized Dee's energy and intelligence and called her to offer a job. Her initial response was "No, no, no - I wouldn't have any idea what to do." However, he was determined and landed his new journalist with an offer of $300 a month.
The new reporter in town underwent extensive on-the-job career training.
"Just go out and get the news," Leckenby advised. "You know everyone in town."
The publisher may have taken on more than he bargained for. Richards didn't hesitate to criticize community leaders in her weekly editorials and didn't seem to care whether the fallout made Leckenby uncomfortable.
"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," former Pilot reporter Christine McKelvie said. "She felt she had a strong responsibility to tell the community what she believed it needed to know."
Some of the subjects of Richards' editorials never got over the lumps she dished out; others grew to admire her principles. She offered them all cookies and peace, but that didn't mean she let up on them.
One of Dee's missions in Steamboat Springs was planting more trees. For many years after leaving City Council, "Dee's Trees" were a line item in the city budget.
She once persuaded a developer who wanted to give her an expensive watch as a token of his esteem, to plant a row of crabapple trees along Howelsen Parkway instead.
No one ever questioned Dee's moral compass.
The editor didn't know the meaning of the word vanity, and her sense of humor tilted toward "self-deprecating."
She was known to attend company parties wearing a hat fashioned by inverting the woven straw basket that houseplants often arrive in from the floral shop.
For me, she always had a personality of a magnitude similar to that of historical and mythical figures such as the Unsinkable Molly Brown or Annie Oakley.
Dee Richards influenced a couple of generations of young journalists in Northwest Colorado and lived a life we can all aspire to emulate.
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