A pioneering journalist and food historian who documented the local past and present, Katie Fiene entertained, informed, and educated the citizens of Randolph County for decades.
Katheryn Rae Rosendohl was born on March 9, 1917, in Willisville. The daughter of Henry Ray Rosendohl and Maude Smith, Katie was raised in rural Perry County alongside her three sisters, Madolyn, Margaret, and Norma. Their father, Ray, worked in the local coal mines before starting his own business, running a grocery store and butcher shop. After three years of high school in Steeleville, she moved to St. Louis in 1933 with an aunt and uncle, Gertrude and Francis Malan, to finish her education, completing her senior year at Cleveland High School.
In 1938, 21-year-old Katie married George Edison “Judy” Fiene at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Steeleville. Their early years of marriage were, like so many others, affected by war. Judy enlisted in the army in March 1943. Katie was inspired to do her own bit to improve the morale of the young men from the area who had joined the service. During the war, she began publishing her first column, called “Dear Boys,” in the Steeleville Ledger. The column was written like a letter from home, sharing all the latest news to make the soldiers and sailors feel like they were hearing from a friend. “The fellas couldn’t wait to get it,” she remembered four decades later.
After the war, the Fiene family grew to include two children: a daughter, Cassandra, and a son, Kent. Judy ran an auto dealership in Steeleville and worked as a supply foreman for the Captain Mine, while Katie was busy running the household and continuing to write. Stories of family life often made their way into Katie’s columns. By this time, Katie had been hired to write for the Sparta News-Plaindealer. Her “Katie’s Kolyum,” which debuted in 1956, and special feature articles became a mainstay in the paper for the next three decades. She sometimes worried that she was including too much personal content in her columns, but she found that readers, who had come to see her as a familiar friend, complained if she didn’t keep them updated on the goings-on in the Fiene family.
That connection with the public was reinforced when she began making regular radio appearances on WHCO of Sparta and KSGM of Chester and Ste. Genevieve, reading her columns and broadcasting special events during a regular 10-minute show. For years, she was WHCO’s radio host for the annual Fourth of July Parade in Steeleville. The community’s trust in her voice was so great that, in 1976, she was hired as the director of advertising and public relations for First National Bank of Steeleville.
Katie’s writing and presenting may have seemed effortlessly friendly, but she was careful to preserve her own unique voice in her columns. “My editor told me, ‘Forget all the big words you ever knew and write like you were talking. Don’t sit and try to impress. Let it go the way you feel.’ I think that’s the secret of writing—have your own style. I developed mine without realizing it,” she explained as she reflected on her career.
Katie covered an enormous range of topics in her column—“everything from the Twist to the church bazaar,” she told a fellow columnist in the 1960s—and she was always on the hunt for good material. She wrote about a little of everything. One notable profile featured the Bockhorn brothers from Campbell Hill, who played basketball at Dayton. And she documented her very favorite journalistic moment of all: meeting Queen Elizabeth II during her 1959 visit to Chicago. She was chosen as one of 700 representatives from local organizations.
But some subjects were particular favorites. Along the way, she incorporated two of her greatest interests—history and cooking—as regular content in her columns. Katie was deeply interested in the history of Randolph County and of Illinois. She was an active member of local historical organizations, serving as president of the Randolph County Historical Society. She was also elected president of the Illinois State Historical Society in 1976, becoming just the second woman to hold that position.
A case of writer’s block led her to one of her most popular topics: food. While searching fruitlessly for a topic to write about, Katie recalled that she accidentally struck gold on a Saturday morning. “I had a deadline to meet and I had no ideas,” she remembered. “I had bread on one end of the table and a typewriter on another. I looked at the bread and thought, why not write about breadmaking?” It was an unexpected hit. Katie found her regular baking ritual to be a soothing and essential part of life, crucial for maintaining her well-being. “There’s a lot of joy in cooking,” she told Dave Morris of the Southern Illinoisan in 1985. “When problems occur, some people reach for a martini. I reach for my bread board.” Many of her readers agreed, and so did the people who sampled her baking. She became so proficient at bread-making that she captured a much-wanted prize for her efforts: a blue ribbon at the Du Quoin State Fair. She recorded her excitement in her column: “It happened. Finally happened. Christmas, birthday and Fourth of July all rolled into one. The Pulitzer Prize couldn’t have made me happier.”
Once Katie began sharing her favorite recipes and cooking stories, contributions from readers poured in. Steeleville’s eccentric local baker, Edgar Brown, became a dedicated reader and often shared his best tips and tricks to help her perfect her bread. For three decades, home cooks mailed in their favorite recipes, complete with notes and suggestions. Katie tested and tried them, sharing her favorites with the public in her column. By the 1980s, she had amassed such an interesting assortment of dishes that she decided to publish her own cookbook featuring many of the recipes. “Every recipe in this book is somebody’s favorite,” she explained, proud of the fact that cooks had taken the time to send her their best. Her own award-winning bread recipe was included, along with a whole range of casseroles, preserves, pies, soups, salads, and much more.
Though Katie’s readers had provided a great deal of material for the cookbook, her own family also gave her inspiration. The book was dedicated to the memory of her mother, Maude Smith Rosendohl, “who was a constant source of love and encouragement, and who taught me by example the knack of preparing tasty dishes from simple foods. Her philosophy to retain the old but accept the new applied to many things—even cooking.” Katie’s daughter, Cassy Rodgers, contributed a foreword to the book as well. She wrote, “It seems to me that Mom has always been a great cook. I remember especially how good the breads and coffee cakes made the house smell all week-end. How we gathered at the kitchen table for coffee or iced tea, good things to eat and good conversation. How happy, warm and full we always felt in the kitchen!”
The cookbook project also had another important angle. Katie was deeply interested in food history, especially the old ways of cooking and the popular recipes of the past. She was concerned that, if these home traditions were not properly documented, they were in danger of fading away entirely. She told the Southern Illinoisan that she wanted to make her cookbook “a partial source of information about how foods were prepared in earlier times, a few generations ago, because so many of them are quickly being lost.” This connection between history and food provided her with opportunities to demonstrate old-world ways of cooking. She teamed up with other cooks and food historians, including Adele Hahn of Chester, to showcase cooking techniques from Randolph County’s French colonial history, giving presentations to local groups.
In 1977, Katie’s husband, Judy, passed away after a long illness. The couple had been married for four decades. She surprised herself by finding love again. She married Vincent Birchler, the state representative for Illinois’s 58th district, in Chester in 1979. They shared a dedication to public service. Katie served as a member of numerous boards, including the Randolph County Welfare Service, which provided assistance to needy families, and Southern Illinois Incorporated, a not-for-profit economic development organization. She did a little bit of everything, from emceeing local fashion shows and judging county fair cookbook competitions to delivering keynote speeches and volunteering with elementary school programs.
Katie’s contributions were not overlooked by the members of her community. She was recognized with numerous accolades, including an award for outstanding community service from Theta Sigma Phi, the journalism fraternity at Southern Illinois University. She was a valued member of the SIU Editorial Association, the Illinois Women’s Press Association, and the National Federation of Press Women. She displayed the awards she received for her writing at her home in a place of pride, right next to her cooking awards.
Katie lived to the remarkable age of 100, passing away on Christmas Day in 2017. After Vince’s death, she married a third time, to Paul Heires, at the age of 85. Living a life that long means getting accustomed to saying goodbye. She endured the passings of all three of her husbands and her son, Kent. She was survived by her daughter, Cassy, with whom she spent her final years in Minnesota, as well as her daughter-in-law, Inez, and numerous grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren.
As a member of a small pioneering group of local female columnists, Katie demonstrated that a woman’s viewpoint—the phrase she used to describe her column—was more than worth reading. Journalism, above all, was her passion. In a letter to a friend who had decided to try her own hand at writing, Katie wrote, “I’m so happy you are taking up journalism. It’s such fun … and you never get over the whole bit. I always say that when I cut my finger I don’t see blood, but ink!”
Katie Fiene was inducted into The Randolph Society in 2023.