Helen Streu, a matriarch of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, died at home Monday July 21, of lung cancer. She was 81. Deacon Vince Hansen eulogized Streu as faithful, loving and strong to the end, from planting a garden with enough extra starts to give away this spring to attending church a week before her death. “Helen spent all of her dying time living,” he said.
Always active, she used a chainsaw until her illness weakened her, and completed her last moose hunt solo two years ago at her place in Willow. “I asked who was going to help her, and she said ‘nobody’,” Hansen said.
There was a laugh during an otherwise somber moment of the funeral mass when the music Streu had chosen herself, a recording of Bonnie Raitt singing “Dimming of the Day” kept rolling after Raitt finished into a loud blues guitar riff before shutting off. Church musician Dick Flegel suggested angelic intervention, and said, “Thanks Helen, you got us with that one.”
Friend George Ann Smith said it was a fitting send off. “Helen and I always had fun together no matter what we did.”
Smith recalled the time they tried arts and crafts. “We collected beer cans for months, and then spray painted them silver and gold. We hoped to make people out of them. We had a great time trying even after we realized that neither of us had much patience or artistic ability.” They met when both were newly arrived in Haines, raised their families together and remained fast friends nearly fifty years. “I trusted her and she trusted me. All the things that I have done wrong in my life have gone with Helen. I told her everything,” Smith said.
Vince Hansen said Streu, “spoke quite negatively” about her childhood experiences in the Catholic Church, yet remained a voice for change within the church. “She never gave up on it. She always saw the good in it.” Her frank and thoughtful poems were published in Catholic periodicals.
Helen Mary Marsh was born in Plentywood, Montana Nov. 15, 1932, the 6th and youngest child of poor farmers Bernard and Elizabeth (Schmidt) Marsh. Her father was, “Somewhat of a highway man and a drifter,” daughter Lisa Flory said. Streu was raised in Annandale, Minnesota, attended teacher training school and taught a year in a one-room schoolhouse, but didn’t like it. “She was living with a family who prohibited her from dancing at the Grange Hall because it was ‘unseemly,’” Flory said. Streu moved to Minneapolis, became a waitress and “did all the dancing she wanted.” She married Annandale farming neighbor Jack Streu, then in the Air Force, in Myrtle Beach S.C. June 8, 1959. Following his discharge she helped put him through college waitressing. Once he earned a degree in petroleum engineering, they headed for oil-rich Alaska. They were stuck in Haines Junction during the 1964 earthquake, but when they finally drove through the walls of snow into the green Chilkat Valley, Helen said, “This is home.” Her husband got a job at the tank farm, and Streu’s only child, Lisa, was born here in Sept. 1965. Helen was a stay at home mom who occasionally bartended and waitressed.
Helen worked alongside her husband building a log home from trees they cut on their property and finished the inside mostly herself. “Every piece of trim, sheet rocking, she built all the cupboards from a kit,” Flory said. In 1973 Jack’s work brought the family to South Korea. In 1977 they built a home in Willow with views of Denali that Helen’s grandson Jack Flory named Moosewillow on one of many visits there.
Jack Streu died in 1989. On July 4th 1993 Helen married widower and old friend Bill Baird of Haines at the Sage home here. “She joked that it was ‘Dependence Day’ from now on,” Lisa Flory said. In 1994 they left Willow and settled in a few doors up from her daughter’s family, caring for her grandson after school. “It was great Jack had that comfort of someone to snuggle with while I was at work,” Lisa said. Bill died in 2004. Streu’s niece Michelle Byer and husband Michael lived with her for several for years after that. “Family always came first. Her love of family and God,” Lisa Flory said.
Helen Streu was also a longtime Legion Auxiliary member and sometime Legion bartender, enjoyed the company of her husky Oscur for 18 years, and wrote and published poetry her whole life. The last ten years she devoted much time to her church and was a lay reader at the 2006 ordination of Deacon Hansen.
Helen Streu leaves family Lisa Flory, Randy Sykes, and Jack Flory of Haines, sister Harriette Scherer of Melrose, Minnesota, and niece Michelle Byer and Michael Byer of Juneau, and numerous other nieces and nephews.