By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
By Jeff Balke
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
Helen and her late husband, who ran a trucking company and lived in Rosenberg, bought a lot in 1981, intending to use it as a weekend getaway.
"We just fell in love with it," she says. "We liked it because of the open space. My husband loved the oak trees."
But in 1989 they got an offer they couldn't refuse on their Rosenberg home, and built a new house at the Bar X. They moved, looking forward to spending their retirement in such a pleasant place.
Then the bottom fell out of the real estate market, and Gibraltar declared bankruptcy. A company called Oxford bought the remaining Gibraltar lots, but it too was racked with financial problems. To make matters worse, the management company hired by Gibraltar was still collecting maintenance fees without doing much maintaining.
"We were devastated out here," says Helen. The books were in disarray, with checks to maintenance crews and contractors bouncing left and right.
In the mid-'90s, Bar X residents slowly began to take control of the land by purchasing lots themselves and paying the back taxes. Helen and her husband bought several hundred acres to help push Oxford out of the picture. But Helen decided that wasn't enough.
"I had just sold my business, and I'd been off for two weeks and it was driving me crazy," she says. Her husband, Buddy, a stout man whom everybody else on the Bar X took to calling Big Daddy, had retired years earlier to fight emphysema, but Helen couldn't stand being around the house with nothing to do.
In July 1995 she agreed to become acting administrator of the ranch. She sifted through more disorganized paperwork than she could stand, and collected no salary. But she's quick to point out that she wasn't the only one who volunteered.
"A lot of homeowners out here pitched together," she says.
The fight between the residents and Oxford went all the way to court, where Helen led the Bar X landowners in victory. In 1997, with the ranch financially stable and solely in the hands of the property owners, Helen was officially hired by the board of directors as a paid manager. Her duties included notifying property owners of deed violations, collecting maintenance fees and organizing paperwork.
For Helen, the opportunity to manage the ranch seemed like a special gift. She thought of it as her chance to have an extended family of sorts.
A native of a tiny town in Wisconsin, she left home two weeks before her 13th birthday. Her parents, she says, were "pretty rough," so she went to live with a family for whom she baby-sat. They gave her room and board in exchange for child care.
But she was never a wild kid, Helen says. She remained the kind of person she thought her parents would have wanted her to be. Still, she couldn't bring herself to enjoy school, and never went further than the eighth grade -- still one of her biggest regrets.
One night, while hanging out with other teenagers in the town square, she saw a macho-looking guy with a good build and dark, curly hair driving slowly around the block.
"It was the naughtiest thing I ever did," she remembers. "He was driving around and my friend and I crossed the road so we'd be on the opposite side when he stopped. We stood there and talked for a long time. And I told my friend Shirley, 'Shirley, I'm gonna marry that guy.' And three days later we were married. I was 17." The young couple eventually had two sons and a daughter and settled in Texas, where they ran a successful trucking company that hauled chemicals all over North America.
Once Helen was settled as manager of the Bar X, her family and the ranch seemed to bleed together. All three of her kids took up residence, her granddaughter was elected to the board, and Helen's son Bo was hired as the maintenance man. Even Big Daddy, though he was suffering from breathing troubles, took to patrolling the ranch with his miniature pinscher, Cricket, by his side. Where some might see nepotism, Helen just saw a chance to involve her whole family in what she thought was the greatest place on earth.
Hard times came for Helen, but they didn't stop her devotion to the Bar X. Big Daddy died in August 2001, just five days before their 50th wedding anniversary, and Helen had to turn the planned celebration into a memorial service. In June 2002, she underwent her last chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer. She was so hard-nosed about beating the cancer on her own that she didn't even tell her children she had it until the night before her mastectomy. (When speaking of the shooting, she jokes that Bruce Rogers "got my only good boob.")
Despite the chemo treatments wiping her out physically, Helen proudly proclaims, "I never missed a day of work. Never missed a day of work. God gives me what I can handle, and he knows I'm a tough old girl."
Lorenda Anderson, part-time Bar X bookkeeper and Helen's longtime friend, says it's impossible to imagine anyone complaining about her boss. The woman couldn't love the Bar X more if she tried. She organizes garage sales, worries about sick residents and gets emotionally involved with everyone she meets.