Laying the Groundwork: Helen Winter Stauffer on the Trail of Mari Sandoz

Heather Stauffer is an Associate Acquisitions Editor at UNP. She is the granddaughter of Helen Winter Stauffer, a Mari Sandoz scholar. Helen Winter Stauffer (1922-2019), was the author of Mari Sandoz and Letters of Mari Sandoz. Read Helen’s obituary here.

Mari Sandoz is known for her persistence and storytelling, attention to details, and stubbornness.  She wrote of her homeland in the Nebraska Sandhills, blending narrative history and stories relentlessly informed by research and personal correspondence. After her death in 1966, knowledge of the author threatened to fade as the people who knew her passed on. Her story needed a biographer, and Helen Winter Stauffer took up the challenge.

Helen Winter grew up in Grand Island, Nebraska, and completed an associate degree at Colorado Women’s College on the cusp of World War II. During the war, she taught aerial gunnery as a member of the Women’s Navy (WAVES) at Alameda Air Base in California. She married Mike Stauffer, stationed nearby with the Coast Guard horse patrol, in 1944, and the couple returned to Nebraska after both were discharged. They were the first military couple to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on the GI Bill but dropped out after a semester when Mike got a job several hours away and Helen found out she was pregnant with their first child.

By 1956, she was the mother of four and a farm wife on the outskirts of Grand Island. She balanced her role as stay-at-home mother with an active social calendar consisting of local clubs and church groups. However, she knew that returning to school for her teaching certificate would also help the family during lean years. When her youngest daughter started kindergarten in 1962, Helen enrolled in classes at Kearney State College. As often as possible, she carpooled the nearly forty-five miles to Kearney from Grand Island with other housewives.

She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Kearney State College in 1964. While continuing with classes, she taught at Grand Island High School from 1964-1967. She completed her master’s degree in English from Kearney State College in 1968 and began her career as an English professor at KSC the same year. But she did not slow down. During the summer sessions, she continued her graduate studies at the university in Lincoln.

Helen’s involvement with Mari Sandoz’s work and life began serendipitously. She remembered her father receiving Old Jules as a gift when she was a child, but she was not particularly drawn to any of Sandoz’s writing at the time. Her father confided that he had not liked the book because he could not believe Sandoz would talk about her own father in those terms. Helen’s familiarity with Sandoz deepened when she and David Sandoz (Mari’s cousin) were classmates for a semester at Kearney State. She had read Crazy Horse and liked it, though had not considered the author as a research topic. Years later, Helen discussed dissertation topics with her advisor, Bernice Slote, and stated that she wanted to do something on a Western writer, like Willa Cather. Slote knew about Sandoz’s letters overwhelming librarians on campus and asked if Helen would be interested. She was, and so began the journey.[1]

Helen commuted from Grand Island to teach at Kearney State during the regular semesters. She spent much of her time between semesters sorting letters, conducting interviews, visiting the Sand Hills, and generally researching Sandoz, mostly from her summer residence in Lincoln. The Sandoz collection spanned 40 years and included tens of thousands of letters and carbon-copies of Sandoz’s replies. Helen enlisted student workers to help organize the letters in storage at Love Library and made careful notes of names that looked familiar.[2] This list of names was the starting point for her interviews, and luckily several people still lived in the Lincoln area. Most interviewees respected Sandoz’s intelligence, but how they felt about her personality varied, especially if they had tried to argue against her about some detail or stance.

Helen admitted that she was in no hurry. She tracked research threads from a variety of sources, including the Sandoz home, Nebraska State Historical Society, Chadron, Syracuse University, the University of Wyoming, Denver Public Library, and the Chamberlin (Nebraska) furniture store museum. She gleaned any information she could from people, correspondences, historical notes, index files, maps, Sandoz’s working library, and most of the book manuscripts.

The Sandoz family was guarded, especially when a farmwife with no connections to the family started asking questions and collecting information. Caroline Sandoz screened all of Mari’s letters before sending them to UNL. Helen eventually entered her good graces and was invited to visit, however Mari’s other sister, Flora, was much more wary. During one of the visits, Flora called Caroline, and Helen was audience to their phone conversation in the other room as Flora told Caroline to “be careful!” around with that woman asking about Mari.[3]

Helen admitted that she was overly careful about how she portrayed Sandoz in writing because if the sisters did not like how something appeared, they would stop all correspondence with the author. Only once did this cause problems for Helen, but whatever the qualm Caroline and Flora had, it resolved itself and communication began again. They eventually warmed to her, especially Caroline, who shared several conversations about Mari and invited Helen to stay with her on multiple occasions. Mari’s brothers were much more open to meeting her. Once, Young Jules took her around the country on a tractor and chatted for several hours. Caroline had to drive around the countryside looking for them in order to take Helen back to the house.[4]

Helen defended her dissertation and attained her PhD in 1974 from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She continued teaching at Kearney State, which had become less of a commute when the family moved to the Kearney area a few years earlier.

However, the road to revising her dissertation into a book manuscript lasted several years. She was spurred on by the early direction of Virginia Faulkner at the University of Nebraska Press.  Though Helen searched out and tracked down details in a manner as thorough as Sandoz, she admitted that details of manuscript editing was not anything she was interested in or necessarily good at doing. Bernice Slote continued giving encouragement. Her letters and advice were graceful and tactful, and they certainly enhanced the publishing process. Finally, Mari Sandoz: Story Catcher of the Plains was released in 1982 to mostly-positive reviews.

For nearly the next decade, Helen continued her work on Sandoz’s letters as she vetted them for Letters of Mari Sandoz. She corresponded with Bill Regier at UNP while selecting nearly 400 letters from batches divided by decade. The publishing process was rockier for this volume: Virginia Faulkner and Bernice Slote had passed away within a few years of each other;[5] Helen’s husband, Mike, suffered major health problems and was hospitalized; the manuscript files from Helen’s Apple were not compatible with the Press’s IBM computers; and Helen’s new project editor had no patience for Helen’s detailed comments on the revisions and even less tact when discussing them.

By the time Letters of Mari Sandoz was released in 1992, Helen had retired from teaching, she and Mike were living full time in Kearney with plans to travel internationally, and they had 10 grandchildren. She hoped that the book would present Mari to a larger audience and new scholarship, stating several times that though she enjoyed doing the research and getting to know Sandoz, she would not publish another book on the author. She wanted to lay solid groundwork and watch where future scholars would go from there.

[1] Interview, 31 March, 2015.

[2] This included a young research assistant, Emily Levine.  Levine works at UNL and is the editor of the award-winning Witness: A Hunkpapha Historian’s Strong-Heart Song of the Lakotas (Nebraska 2013).

[3] Stauffer interview, 31 March 2015.

[4] Stauffer interview, 31, March 2015.

[5] Falkner passed in 1980, just before the book went into production; Slote in February 1983.

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