Dakota businesses turn Wasilla tragedy into Christmas kindness

Zaz Hollander

WASILLA -- An Alaska family spending its first Christmas without wife and mother Twila Feezell got an unexpected gift of kindness from strangers in another oil-rich state.

Feezell, a Wasilla resident, was 38 when she died unexpectedly in late October. She left behind a man she'd married just five months earlier and five children: her biological daughters, 17 and 20, as well as 8-, 9-, and 10-year-old boys adopted from a special-needs center in Arizona.

She also left $1,000 worth of gifts on layaway at Wasilla's Walmart -- a laptop, iPads, a camera, clothes and toys.

Her sister, Tina White, came to Wasilla for Feezell's memorial service in early November, then returned to work at Hertz Equipment Rental in Tioga, N.D. The town, one of those at the epicenter of the area's oil boom, is also bustling with the expansion of the local Hess Corp. gas plant.

Coworkers and gas plant project contractors knew White's sister had died. Dean Miller, a supervisor for a local insulation company on the Hess expansion, wandered over and asked how she was holding up. She told him about the layaway.

Within four hours, White said, Miller rallied his employees and others and raised enough to pay off the layaway -- Kiewit's Peter Remington paid it off in full with a company credit card -- plus another $1,196 on top of that.

"It was all the employees here, it was the Hess employees ... Westcon, Ardent Services, Miller Insulation, Kiewit," she said. "There's so many companies up here they just kind of passed the hat around."

The Walmart in nearby Williston got the payment to the Wasilla store. Feezell's mother, Rena Robinson, picked everything up in Wasilla, where she helps take care of the younger children orphaned after their mother died.

Robinson said the generosity of Remington and the others -- people her daughter never met -- astonished her.

"Thank you very much, and thanks for making my grandchildrens' Christmas," she said, when asked what she would tell them. "You paid for the last gifts that my daughter will ever give them."

The cause of Feezell's death remains undetermined, her mother said. She went to bed at 1:30 a.m. and never woke up.

Her daughter loved to go four-wheeling and wasn't afraid to try anything, Robinson said. She took in people needing a roof over their heads. She cooked massive meals -- brunch was her favorite -- and loved to bake. She had worked as a nurse, teacher, paramedic and day-care owner. Despite back problems, she had gone to work at G & G Foodmart in Wasilla just before her death.

As a pregnant teenager, Feezell switched from Colony High School to Burchell High School, an alternative high school in Wasilla. Feezell loved Burchell, her mother said. Both of her daughters attended the school.

Feezell adopted her boys while living in Arizona. Along with her biological grandson, she also considered the child of her stepdaughter to be her grandchild, Robinson said of Feezell.

Steve Wild, Feezell's husband, also expressed his gratitude for the help his family got from North Dakota and also from the Wasilla community.

The three boys attend Snowshoe Elementary in Wasilla. After their mother died, people at the school sent home or brought over food -- pizza to hotdish -- every night for almost two weeks, Robinson said. At Thanksgiving, the school presented the family five boxes of food, including a turkey.

"It just amazes me how giving people are to people that they don't really know," she said. "It just blows me away that there's just that many good people out there still. Sometimes you lose your faith in people. Then all of a sudden, it's just brought back."

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 352-6705.