Family, friends and colleagues will gather Saturday to celebrate the life of Jomay Steen, a former Rapid City Journal reporter who is being remembered for her laughter, humor, kindness, and joy and skill as a storyteller.
Steen, 61, died suddenly of unknown causes on July 10 while enjoying a day of sightseeing with family members.
A gathering to celebrate her life will be from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at Legion Hall on Third and Main streets in Faith. Those who attend are encouraged to share their favorite stories about Steen.
According to Steen’s obituary, she graduated from South Dakota State University in 1980 and served as a VISTA volunteer for two years in Helena and Billings, Mont., before starting her first career as a teacher. She taught at Bridger Day School, then at Cherry Creek Day School and Takini from 1983 to 1996. Steen returned to SDSU where she finished her journalism degree and had internships with the Freedom Forum Institute and Community News Service.
Jack Marsh recalls Steen’s path to journalism. Marsh was the executive editor of the Argus Leader from 1992 to 1998, a time when the newspaper was trying to provide opportunities for Native American journalists, he said. Richard Lee, head of SDSU’s journalism department, told Marsh about Steen, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe.
“She was a nontraditional student and she wanted to try journalism. The Argus Leader awarded her a scholarship and then we got her into the Chips Quinn Scholars Program, the signature diversity program of the Freedom Forum,” Marsh said.
Steen was an intern at the Argus Leader and then worked full time at its Brookings bureau and in the Sioux Falls office from 1998 to 2003. She took additional training at the University of South Dakota’s American Indian Journalism Institute, Marsh said, and ultimately Steen became a mentor and teacher at the Crazy Horse Journalism Workshop, which gives high school and college students opportunities to learn fundamentals of journalism.
“Jomay was a remarkable person,” Marsh said. “She was such a kind person, such a gentle soul, but extremely competent in everything she did. Jomay would light up a room when she walked in. She had this infectious laugh and was always optimistic, always had a positive attitude. She taught us all about the importance of being kind and decent and caring for one another.”
In 2003, Steen was hired by Peggy Sagen to be a reporter for the Rapid City Journal. Steen remained at the Journal until she returned to teaching in 2011. Hundreds of Steen’s articles and food blog entries are still on the Rapid City Journal’s website.
Stephanie Olson Smith, a former Journal copy editor, was at SDSU with Steen and later worked with her.
“I remember being in journalism classes with her. We looked up to her for her knowledge and experience,” Smith said. “She was so great at what she did and such a fun person to be around.”
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Steen wrote many food feature stories and occasionally hilarious food blog posts for the Journal. After retirement, she often chronicled delicious meals and other details of country life in her Facebook posts.
In memory of Steen and her passion for journalism, Steen’s family has established a Native American memorial scholarship fund in her name at South Dakota State University. The scholarship is for Native journalism students in the School of Communication and Journalism within the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. Donations can be made at sdstatefoundation.org/give-now by designating “Jomay Steen Memorial Scholarship” under the “Gift in honor or memory” section of the form. Checks can also be mailed to: SDSU Foundation, 815 Medary Avenue, Box 525, Brookings, SD 57007. Krause said the scholarship was created “so Jomay's name wouldn’t be forgotten.”
Steen returned to her teaching career and taught at Rock Creek Grant School in Bullhead, and Standing Rock Indian School at Fort Yeats until she retired in 2016. Steen grew up on her family’s land in the Faith area that her grandparents homesteaded in 1908. After retiring, she returned to live there with her older sister, LouAnn Steen.
"She was the best sister in the world, and I was happy I had her home here for three years," LouAnn Steen said. "I enjoyed her. She was a delight."
Steen’s cousin, Kathleen Krause of Rapid City, recalls that Steen loved reading, loved children and always took a journal with her when she traveled, even on her final day trip. Steen also loved time with family, traveling, and was a longtime participant in a book club with Krause.
“She was a fabulous storyteller and she loved to talk. Everybody that met her loved her,” Krause said.
Steen had written a detailed, paragraphs-long plan for the day that turned out to be her last.
“Cousins Kathleen and Wayne … can sit around here with our two cats and LouAnn’s grand doggies to visit, or we can take them on the Magical Historic Tour around all of the old Steen ranches,” Steen wrote on Facebook.
The day included photos near a new water tower, visits to ranches, a leisurely lunch, and a stop at a coffee shop in Faith.
“Jomay had planned this perfect day, and we got to do almost everything on that perfect day,” Krause said.