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Margene Asay hangs it up after nearly 40 years with Tribal Health

B.L. Azure
THHS PIO

Margene and Magda Silva are all smiles after a long day of conducting a bone marrow registry effort for Chrissy Ducharme last September in Polson. (B.L. Azure photo)Margene and Magda Silva are all smiles after a long day of conducting a bone marrow registry effort for Chrissy Ducharme last September in Polson. (B.L. Azure photo)

ST. IGNATIUS — Fifty shades of the color pink took a big hit at Tribal Health with the retirement of health educator/fitness centers manager, resident pinkoholic, and friend and promoter of youth, Margene Asay. The ever charged-up pink lady stepped down near the end of the 2013 after 37 years with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Tribal Health and Human Services Department.

Retirement had been on Asay’s radar for quite some time but slow recovery from surgery on her upper vertebrae forced her hand and hastened the decision to call it a career a tad sooner then planned.

“I have worked so hard to be healthy throughout my life then this happened but I am glad I got it done,” Asay said of the spinal condition and resulting surgery. “My plan was to return to work after surgery in September then retire at the end of the year. But recovery went slower than I anticipated.”

Following surgery Asay had to wear a neck brace 24/7 longer than the eight weeks her doctor predicted. She finally was freed from the neck brace in January. Consequently she didn’t return to work and exited the stage without much fanfare, which was okay by her.

However, that didn’t stop the Tribal Health fitness centers staff from springing a surprise on her at the Kids Health Fair in mid-November at the St. Ignatius Fitness/Community Center. It was a melancholy but spirited farewell filled with hugs, tears, honor songs, gifts, food and praises.

“If anyone can say they are dedicated to the lives of kids it’s Margene,” said Lance Hawkins, who succeeded Asay as fitness centers manager. “All these activities we do on the reservation probably got started because of Margene. We just hope we can do as well as she has.”

THHS health educator/fitness centers manager Margene Asay warns youngsters at the 2013 River Honoring about the pitfalls of tobacco use. (B.L. Azure photo)THHS health educator/fitness centers manager Margene Asay warns youngsters at the 2013 River Honoring about the pitfalls of tobacco use. (B.L. Azure photo)

And eventually in Mid-December Tribal Health administration lured her to the Neil Charlo building for a send off for her as well as Barb Plouffe, THHS Community Health Division manager, who also retired from Tribal Health this fall.

“I don’t like to be the center of attraction,” Asay said. “The ones that we should all make the centers of attraction are the kids, the youth.”

Her commitment to the youth as well as the loss of her husband, Jerry Asay, resulted in Margene ignoring her nagging health problems. Many — two knee replacements, lower back pain — were the result of her active lifestyle as a hard charging softball player in the summer coed leagues and tournaments.

“When my husband died I became consumed by my job and didn’t take the time to address my own health issues,” Margene said. The consummation by her job helped her cope with the loss of her life’s mate, Jerry — the father of their two sons, Terry and Steve. However, the immersion resulted in neglect of her spinal cord injury. “I am glad I took the time to get this done. Now I am feeling pretty darn healthy and I am going to continue to work hard to stay that way.”

Asay said she started out slow with physical therapy and steadily increased her pace. She now walks 45 minutes in the morning, takes a short break then peddles a stationary bike for 60 minutes. She is also participating in the 9th annual Walking The Rez health walk activity sponsored by THHS fitness centers and the Diabetes Prevention Program.

Asay, who earned a teaching degree at Western Montana College (now called University of Montana-Western) in Dillon in the late-60s, met Jerry, — “The love of my life” — there and they eventually got married.

Margene Asay was acknowledged at the annual Kids Health Fair at the St. Ignatius Fitness Center by her staff and others. From left are: Arles Hendrickson, Cristen Twoteeth, Brenda Bodnar, Carlin Matt, Gigi Yazzie, Howard Walker, Pearl Yellowman Caye, Julie Williams and Lance Hawkins. (B.L. Azure photo)Margene Asay was acknowledged at the annual Kids Health Fair at the St. Ignatius Fitness Center by her staff and others. From left are: Arles Hendrickson, Cristen Twoteeth, Brenda Bodnar, Carlin Matt, Gigi Yazzie, Howard Walker, Pearl Yellowman Caye, Julie Williams and Lance Hawkins. (B.L. Azure photo)

Following graduation Margene and Jerry started teaching school in Ryegate, a small agricultural community in the Big Middle of Montana, 60 miles northwest of Billings. After that stint Jerry joined the U.S. Army and eventually was stationed in Germany. Margene soon followed and they both taught school on an Army base at Ulm.

Following Jerry’s discharge, the couple returned to Big Sky Country and the Flathead Indian Reservation.

“When we came home neither one of us had a job,” she said. However it didn’t take her long to find one at Tribal Health in its infancy. “There was just me, Kevin (Howlett) and Carla (Tanner) at the start then soon Opal (Cajune) came aboard.”

“Margene was one of the first employees I hired after we (PL-638) contracted some of the programs of the Indian Health Service,” said THHS Director Kevin Howlett. “After that initial bang the secondary level of growth was working on the creation of a health delivery department that is now Tribal Health. We gradually began to assume more contracts with IHS. In hindsight it happened really quick, within three years we were headed in the direction we’re at now with our own infrastructure that addresses our significant management issues.”

Asay began work at Tribal Health October 25, 1977, as one of Tribal Health’s first hand full of employees as a resource manager. Her charge was to help people navigate the paperwork and bureaucracy of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program and the such. She stayed in that position for 20 years.

Nancy Vaughn, Tribal Health’s Human Resources Administrative Services manager, reminisces about Margene Asay’s long tenure at Tribal Health during a staff gathering. (B.L. Azure photo)Nancy Vaughn, Tribal Health’s Human Resources Administrative Services manager, reminisces about Margene Asay’s long tenure at Tribal Health during a staff gathering. (B.L. Azure photo)

“I loved that job, I loved helping people,” she said. “I had a lot to learn so I jumped right into the job and asked lot of questions of the folks at Social Security and the other programs. I got a lot of good guidance and advice. I also attended Social Security workshops in order learn all I could.”

Asay said there is a method to the bureaucratic madness that exists in large bureaucracies such as Social Security.

“People, on their own would often give up trying to deal with getting Social Security benefits because of the bureaucratic B.S.,” she said. “I learned how the bureaucracy works. There wasn’t a day that I didn’t learn something on that job.”

The main lesson learned was to convince people not to give up after the initial denial and how to help them appeal the initial decision that often denied Social Security benefits.

Asay was born in St. Ignatius and attended school in Dixon and graduated from high school there.

“After (1964 high school) graduation I really wanted to get off the reservation,” Asay said. “But after college and eight years away I wanted to come back home and help our people anyway I could.”

Coming home after such an extended period away at times meant reintroducing herself to many of the folks back home, on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

“People didn’t recognize me when I came back home. I had reintroduce myself to them,” she said. “It didn’t take long to warm up to them and melt the ice though.”

Asay said one the things on her pre-retirement to-do list was to replace the gymnasium floor at the St. Ignatius Fitness Center.

“Getting that new gym floor was one of the big goals,” Asay said, adding that the replacement floor was budgeted to happen in four fiscal years beginning in 2010. However, the allocated funds ended up being used for more urgent issues that popped up unexpectedly. Nonetheless the new floor, that is easier on the body, especially the knees and ankles, was eventually put in this past fall. “We — Tribal Health and fitness center staff — worked hard to get the new floor and we’re so excited that it finally got done.”

Margene converses with a youngster at the Kid’s Health Fair. (B.L. Azure photo) Margene converses with a youngster at the Kid’s Health Fair. (B.L. Azure photo)

After more than 20 years as the resource manager Asay looked over the fence to see what else is out there.

“I loved my job. I knew it inside and out but I had this feeling that I should try and do something else,” Asay said. “When the health education position came open, I applied. I really, really, really wanted the position. I felt it fit me like a ‘T.’ I also felt that I did something good as a resource manager. I put my heart and soul in the job. I loved working with the elderly. I also love working with kids — my passion. I love being a person that helps keep them fit and healthy. They are my priority.”

Thus began Asay’s long swan song as the THHS health educator and fitness centers manager with a keen eye focused on the youth.

“Margene has the ability to work across disciplines,” Howlett said. “She was assigned with the responsibility to implement several prevention programs and she did that well.”

Some of the prevention programs included: smoking cessation, diabetes awareness, weight reduction, blood pressure clinics, blood drives, and organized youth activities, among others.

“We must pay attention to the children among us. I think that is really important. They need to know that they are important, that they are special, that we (adults) care about them, that we support them, and that they are our future,” Asay said. “I am big on education and always encourage the young people to go to college, to give it a try. I always send cookies to students that I know who are doing well in college. It’s just my way of letting them know they are special.”

Asay said she felt Tribal Health fitness centers would continue down the path they have set for themselves.

Margene Asay recognized 91-year-old Frank Huber, a World War II Navy veteran, for his commitment to “pumping so much iron” as part of his health and fitness regimen at the St. Ignatius Fitness Center. (B.L. Azure photo)Margene Asay recognized 91-year-old Frank Huber, a World War II Navy veteran, for his commitment to “pumping so much iron” as part of his health and fitness regimen at the St. Ignatius Fitness Center. (B.L. Azure photo)

“What’s important to me is the Tribal Health staff working together for the mutual benefit and betterment of the people we serve, our people,” Asay said, adding that she feels her replacement, Lance Hawkins, will continue to serve the people well. “I think they will continue to pay attention to the kids. They are important, they are the future and they need to know that. They need to know that we are here to support them.”

Besides helping promote youth fitness and education, Asay said she is proud to have been a part of the annual River Honoring, as well as the seat belt Buckle Up campaign and the tobacco succession promotion effort.

“I think Margene is well suited to continue her active involvement in youth and community activities. She has built a good partnership working with groups and communities,” Howlett said. “Her services and enthusiasm will be missed but she is well deserving of her own time. She gave the Tribes a lot and didn’t ask for much in return. Her longevity here with the Tribes is evidence of her work ethic. We wish her the best.”

Hiyo Silver — um Pink — away!

“Every day when I wake I am very thankful and count my blessings I am now healthy and can do pretty much what I want. My life changed with the loss of Jerry. I worked longer than I expected. I have been here forever. Now I want to enjoy things at a bit slower pace,” Asay said. “I feel real proud of the fact that I have worked here and stayed on the job for 37 years. I think I, along with the staff I worked with, have helped put our stamp on things. I feel we’ve helped the reservation a little bit by doing what we do to promote healthy life styles for people of all ages, especially the young children.”

Stay healthy; there are still a lot of children out there and a lot of cookies yet to bake.

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