Lil Feist honored on 100th birthday

SEATTLE — More than 150 family and friends packed the Nordic Heritage Museum hall here June 28 to celebrate Lil Husa Feist’s 100th birthday and to greet her as a warm and caring mother and grandmother and a fighter for working people’s rights.

Speaking for a delegation of six cousins who flew from Finland, Ilpo Husa thanked Feist for traveling to Finland in the early 1970s to reestablish ties with the Husa family, and presented her with gifts. “Your Finnish is perfect and Finnish is an impossible language,” Husa quipped in accented English.

Her grandsons performed on cello, electric violin and keyboard while her three granddaughters spoke of the profound influence she has had on their lives.

Will Parry, president of the Pacific Northwest chapter of the Alliance of Retired Americans, said, “Lil has a wonderful combination of closeness to people, militancy, and modesty.”

He cited her role in helping win the senior metro transit fare, an important benefit for people on fixed incomes in King County. “We find her phone banking to our senators demanding that they lay off Social Security,” Parry added. “She served for six years on the Advisory Council of the King County Council on Aging and attended the last White House Conference on Aging. She is a treasure.”

Feist’s elder son, Steve Rubicz, spoke of her “independence of spirit” which grew out of her hardscrabble childhood homesteading on the plains of North Dakota, where she was born June 24, 1908. Her first job as a young woman was cooking for migrant farmworker crews during the summer harvest, he said. Seeking adventure, she traveled with a friend in a Model T to Seattle in 1929. Two years later she moved back to North Dakota and then to points east.

Her younger son, Mike Rubicz, picked up the story. In 1934, he said, she and her first husband, Stefan Rubicz, were asked to move to Newark, N.J., to help organize tool and die workers. “It was hard times for working people who had no protection of a union,” Mike Rubicz said. “They began to form the nucleus of a union. There was no money for organizers. One family after another invited them for a meal to be sure they could continue their work organizing.”

Out of their efforts, and others, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers was born, growing to 700,000 members by 1944, “the largest union in the CIO,” he said. “It was her life, writing leaflets, accepting dues. They created a great union.”

They moved back to Rochester, Wash., and later to Seattle as the Cold War descended. Her marriage ended and she had two sons to support. Lil and other left-wing workers were hauled before witch-hunt committees, Mike Rubicz said. Blacklisted from better paying jobs, she earned a living for a time as a household worker. “They were trying to isolate them,” but she was determined to “hold on to her political beliefs” and she never wavered, he said.

Feist sat smiling, leaning on her walking stick, as her family and friends praised her. Before and after the program, she circulated through the crowd greeting people warmly.

Irene Hull, 95, a lifelong friend of Lil’s, was sporting a big Obama button. “Lil deserves every accolade she got here today. I think she is a most amazing woman,” Hull said.