History Lessens

Trouble's a-brewin' at the museum north of town. Old-timers don't cotton to newcomers who want to turn the desert historical center into a Western theme park.

The Helms immediately kicked in $4,000 to help the struggling museum make its payroll. Other outlays, either in the form of materials, time or money, have steadily followed. Today, the Helms estimate they have sunk close to $60,000 into Pioneer, excluding labor.

Three months ago, Lee Helm joined the Pioneer board. At his first meeting, he made "a suggestion of an offer" he would soon regret--to buy the museum and give it to the board.

"I talked to my lawyers," he says. "They said, 'It's real hard to do, but it's possible to actually buy the museum at fair market value [around $1 million for its buildings], give the money to the board, and the board can then turn around and donate the money back to the museum for ongoing improvements, and still keep it a nonprofit.'"

Turmoil ensued. The next day, Loveless says, he received a phone call from longtime board member Louise DeWald, a retired Arizona Republic scribe and cookbook author.

"She told my wife that I was a thief, and that I was trying to steal the museum," Loveless says. Loveless says DeWald, who would not return phone calls for an interview, later apologized.

Rumors began to swirl among the costumed volunteers. Phil Carlins is a member of a Western gunfight reenactment organization called the Arizona Territorial Shootists. He says many reenactors fear Helm is only trying to seize the museum so he can sell it to Del Webb, or to seize it and turn it into his own private playground.

Helm is aware of the rumors.
"We only got half that story out and, boy, big battle," he says with a chuckle. "You can't even bring up a suggestion without somebody going wacko on you out there."

Helm, who is trying to get the votes to become board president, says he only wants to see Pioneer survive, not seize it for his own personal use or gain. He will stay on, he says, only if he can make the board see things his way, adding that he will make his decision about leaving within the next month.

"I'm not a control freak, but they need to run it more like what I would call a business," he says. "I don't think a lot of these people really understand the logistics. They think it's like a city park, and it's gonna be there forever. Well, it's not."

Helm has said he would only be willing to invest in Pioneer if he could guarantee his money wouldn't be doled out piecemeal, with little to show in the end, as he believes happened with the $120,000 donation the museum just finished spending.

Both Helm and Loveless have also discussed trimming the board from its current 15 seats to a more manageable five or seven. As things stand now, Pioneer board meetings remind Helm of Japan's Diet, the legislative body where fistfights over bruised honor have been known to break out. That opinion is shared by board member--and occasional New Times contributor--Bob Boze Bell.

"It's like we're arguing about the arrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic," Bell says. "You go home thinking, 'What the hell did we just accomplish?'"

Preisler, the former board member, says any plans to pare down the board should be given careful thought.

"You need to have a board of that size, or else people just start getting overwhelmed," Preisler says, noting that when he first joined Pioneer, there were only seven seats which, he says, were not nearly enough. The bylaws for the Phoenix Museum of History make allowances for up to 20 board members, Preisler notes.

The Helms are drawing up a more detailed proposal, which they will present to the board at its December meeting. The proposal includes the offer that Diane Helm serve as director on a volunteer basis, saving the museum about $30,000 annually. Loveless, whose ouster is being called for by DeWald and Mildred May and Don Tolbert--two longtime board members--says he wouldn't mind stepping down if it meant saving Pioneer.

Even without Loveless, though, the Helms may have a tough sell. After word of the bailout offer had spread, Lee Helm went out to lunch with May, one of the original civic leaders who helped create the nonprofit Pioneer Foundation back in 1956, when she was vice president of Valley National Bank. Now well into her 80s, May is the only original member left on the board, and still exerts tremendous influence over the museum. Just about everyone associated with the Pioneer, past and present, speaks of her with reverence.

"She's an extremely powerful woman, and an extremely shrewd woman," says Patti O'Toole, an executive with Valley advertising firm Cramer-Krasselt and the board's current president. "She knows just about everybody in this town, and I think just about everyone in this town owes her a favor, too."

May is the matriarch of Pioneer, where stories of her generosity have become legendary. One story in particular, repeated by several people, shows just how far she will go to ensure the museum's survival.

Five years ago, two men were granted the concession to run the restaurant at Pioneer, but were kicked out by the board after just a few months. The men sued, alleging Pioneer failed to observe its contract with them. Pioneer countersued, claiming the men had failed to follow the letter of the lease.

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