Amy Lee Felix: Wife of a hostage reflects on Montana’s deadly 1959 prison riot

Everett "Guff" Felix and his wife Amy Lee shown in the Bitterroot Valley where they lived after the 1959 riot. Guff was a captain and taken hostage. He never went back to the prison.

Everett “Guff” Felix and his wife Amy Lee shown in the Bitterroot Valley in Western Montana where they lived after the 1959 riot. Guff was a captain and taken hostage. He never went back to Montana State Prison.

By Kevin S. Giles

Recently I discovered that Amy Lee Felix had passed away. In reading her obituary I remembered in some detail sitting at her kitchen table in the mid-1990s in the Bitterroot Valley in Montana. I was there to interview Amy’s husband, Everett “Guff” Felix, who had a remarkable story to tell about being held hostage during the 1959 prison riot in Deer Lodge.

Guff would be remembered as the highest-ranking officer taken hostage when the riot began on April 16. He was a captain then, just a few years after he closed his restaurant and began looking for work, hardly prepared by his own admittance to deal with rioting prisoners.

I took the following from a letter Amy wrote me in 1996. It shows what Guff faced as the prison’s new captain:

“We did feel Guff was being tested in the beginning, probably by both the officers and the inmates. When he became captain one of the first things that happened was the peace of our evening was shattered by the ringing of the telephone. This would be repeated and repeated. One of the officers had called Guff on behalf of the inmates. ‘Could they set up an extra thirty minutes to see the end of a TV program they were watching?’ … Guff asked the caller what the rules were. There was a pause as the caller answered his question. Then Guff, before hanging up, gave his answer: “Then follow them.”

Sitting at his kitchen table that day of the interview, his arms crossed, Guff bowed his head and cried. I might have dug too deep with my questions about the riot. He described hostages being packed into cells for 36 hours, fearful death would come any minute. The rioting prisoners led by Jerry Myles and Lee Smart threatened death by gunshots, firebombs, knives, fists and hangings from the metal railing along the catwalk that ran along the cells. Much of what Guff told me went into my book, Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance.

Amy sat beside him quietly. Arthritis racked her body that day, as it had most of her adult life. It had twisted her wrists and turned her fingers sideways. And then she, too, remembered.

The day the riot began, she knew Guff was in trouble. First came eyewitness reports that Deputy Warden Ted Rothe was shot dead. Then Guff didn’t come home and Amy knew why. Amy and several other wives of men held hostage feared the killing would continue.

When, on the third day of the disturbance, the National Guard fired rockets at the prison cell house to scare the rioting prisoners, the booms were heard all over town. Amy raced out of her apartment in her stocking feet. She tore down the gravel alley toward the prison. She ran most of the way before realizing she wore no shoes.

Amy and Guff had led a quiet life before the riot. Guff never went back inside those imposing gray walls. They returned to Corvallis in the Bitterroot Valley, leaving Deer Lodge after hardly more than a year of that strange prison experience.

Guff died in 1998. He was no stranger to violence, having fought in the D-Day invasion of Germany-held Europe in 1945.

Amy died Jan. 25, 2012, in Hillsboro, Oregon, where she had gone to live with her daughter after Guff died. Amy was nationally recognized for her volunteer contributions in education and health care. To Amy, like Guff, the riot would leave a lifelong impression.