b. July 17, 1909 d. December 27, 2010
Powerfully Positive Piano Playing

Have you ever been in the presence of someone who had such an abundance of energy that you could actually feel yourself being drawn into a higher vibration of being? Helen does that for people who are receptive to it. When she plays the piano in the nursing home, some people are taken into a different dimension, while others don’t seem to hear it all. When Helen plays the piano for them, many Alzheimer patients remember every word to songs from their childhood and can actually feel some of the feelings they experienced in their younger days.

Helen not only remembers all the songs from the past, but also every tune she’s heard over the years. Her musical ability may have been a God given talent, but her determination to love Life was a decision she made before she turned 30—a decision that has served her very well and has benefited many fortunate people.

When Helen was a new baby, she was left at an orphanage in Des Moines, Iowa and adopted into a loving farm family in the Waterloo area, where she was graced with one older brother. They lived on a farm near Waterloo, which is now a major corner street where the Red Lobster is located. “They just picked up the house and moved it away many years ago, when that area of town expanded and was developed,” she said. When Helen was just over three years old, she started playing every piece of music she heard on any instrument she could find. Mostly, she played the pipe organ. Of course, she was too little to reach the pedals to pump the organ, so her brother got down there and pumped so she could make her music. When she was seven years old, Helen’s father got her a piano.

Helen has had a very full and wonderful life and recalls with great fondness, the four standing ovations she has received over the years. The first one was when she was seven years old, as she delivered her first public performance at the Black Hawk Country School Reading Contest. She was given a story to read that she’d never seen before, just before going “onstage.” She recalls the story being about a mother bird. She got so interested in the story that she forgot she was reading it to an audience. When she was done, the parents and teachers, including those from many other schools in the county, all jumped to their feet and broke into applause. She was so frightened that she began to cry. The teacher put her arm around Helen and said, “Don’t cry honey, they loved it!” Helen, at seven, received the Black Hawk County Gold Medal. Second prize was awarded to a 15-year-old girl.

The second standing ovation came for Helen during high school. It was the very first year that West High in Waterloo offered a credit for music. She was to play the piano for a teacher who sang “The Indian Love Call” in front of an assembly of the entire student body. The teacher had set up a tee pee and a campfire, with a real-looking flame, and sang an Indian Maiden song to Helen’s piano. Now, anyone who has ever heard Helen play would not be surprised at this because her playing is magical, but Helen was surprised that most of the students were actually paying attention. These young people were so very impressed that they jumped to their feet in a thunderous roar when she completed her playing.

Helen graduated high school in three and one-half years because she took so many music credits. She played “Rustles of Spring as her final exam to get her passing grade. You can get a feel for the complexity of that piece by checking You Tube.

She mentioned that she found the sheet music for “Rustles of Spring” at the library after she moved into Ravenwood Nursing Home. Although Helen can literally make a piano dance these days, she found that old piece too difficult to play when she got to Ravenwood. In 1926, she remembers it being “duck soup,” no challenge whatsoever. Helen says, “Guess I’m slipping!!!” Those of us, who know her, disagree with that one.

Her third standing ovation came in college when her final exam was to put music to words of her choice. Once again, her magical music ability caught the attention of fellow students and faculty, and they showed their appreciation with a standing ovation.

The fourth one, which I was actually honored to be a part of, was at Metanoia, the ecumenical women’s retreat, at the Christian Conference Center near Newton, Iowa. Helen attended Metanoia every October, faithfully for more than 35 years. There was a skit night and Helen’s friend, Pat Carmack, blindfolded Helen and led her to the piano. Helen acted the part of a blind person and pretended to fumble around on the keys finding her way before she broke out into magic melody. After melting our hearts, we gave her a thunderous standing ovation that melted her heart, too. She then entertained us for hours with some of the most delightful songs I have ever heard.

Metanoia was a very big part of the life of this woman with such a generous heart. Interestingly, Metanoia means “change of heart.” Although Helen would dearly love to get back out into the woods each October, she has graciously accepted the forward march of life that keeps her safe and secure, for many people still depend on her vivaciousness, and remains close to Ravenwood Care Center.

When Helen was 19, the woman who thought she was going to become Helen’s future mother-in-law, wanted to know all about her background. So she took Helen to Des Moines to see what they could find out about the biological family of this amazing musician. This would have been about 1928, a time when it was extremely difficult to get information out of an orphanage. Their investigation did allow her to briefly meet her mother but it was a short meeting. Helen thinks she was probably very embarrassed about whatever it was that caused her to place Helen in the orphanage.

However, from that search, Helen did discover that she had two half-sisters, Reva & Rena. Although Reva died, she did keep in contact with Rena throughout her life and actually, was the last person to talk to her sister. Rena lived in the same nursing home in Waterloo where Helen had spent many years playing the piano on a volunteer basis, even before she became a resident there. Helen’s half-sister didn’t talk much about their mother, so it remained a mystery to Helen for most of her life. Finally, Rena told Helen that their mother would play the piano at church without music. One Sunday morning, before leaving for church, Helen stopped to say goodbye to Rena. “Rena announced she was going home that day and that was the last word she spoke to anyone on Earth.”

Helen was married and, like many women of that time, did the very best she could to make a home out of meager possessions. She had three children with her husband; the youngest was born when Helen was 43 years old. Helen remembers raising her first baby in a small apartment that was infested with numerous creatures. She was very taken aback the time she noticed an entire army of bedbugs marching down the hallway of her apartment behind her.

Helen will tell you that her husband was a comedian at heart and always said, “The good die young.” In response, her daughter, who is also a comedian at heart, would say, “My dad would go to great lengths to prove a point,” so he dropped dead at 64. He wouldn’t be surprised to hear about Helen’s 99th birthday party because she is “so terrible.”

Helen was a registered nurse and worked at Friendship Village and Schoitz Hospital in Waterloo. Every night after supper, she and her husband would take a two-mile walk around their neighborhood. After 42 years of marriage, Helen’s husband shared with her that he knew he had made the best decision picking Helen to be his wife. She giggles as she reports that he told her that, “of all the other gals he had known, I was the most interesting and, in all the years we had been married, he appreciated that fact that I was never boring! AMEN!”

Helen has always been active, including doing a great amount of volunteer work. Beside raising a family, being a nurse, many, many years of serving as both the pianist and the choir director, selecting all the music at her Brethren church, she also served as director for the Meals on Wheels program, which delivered balanced meals for shut-ins. In addition to all of that, she worked for Bob Runkle at the Black Hawk Grundy Mental Health. Here, she was paid one dollar a year to be on the employee list, so she could give weekly shots to the patients at the mental health facility.

When the Waterloo mayor decided to begin a program to honor volunteers, Helen was the first chosen to be honored as Volunteer of the Year.

Helen exemplifies dedication. “I believe if you do a job, you DO IT, no matter what the circumstances are.” One Sunday, she drove the 50 miles to play for her church and she was the only one who showed up, due to the weather and ice, she laughs so heartily. When I called her unstoppable, she said, “I guess you could say that, ‘cuz I’m 99!”

Even though Helen had some great education, including nurse’s training, she had always wanted to be a college graduate. So, at 74 she enrolled into college and got her Bachelor’s degree three years later from Upper Iowa University.

One of her first assignments was to write a paper on “what you want to do when you grow up.” Everybody thought it was funny that a 74 year-old woman had to do that. She would never have guessed that she still had a lot of active years ahead of her.

Helen’s picture and story was published in the local newspaper. A woman saw the article and wrote Helen a letter, telling her that when she went back to school at the age of 50, she thought Helen was one of the teachers. She was very seriously considering dropping out because she thought it was ridiculous to be going back to school at 50. However, when she discovered that Helen was a student too, she was inspired to stick it out. How many others Helen has inspired, we’ll never know!

She so loved psychology that she just turned around a got a Masters degree from the University of Northern Iowa. At 78 years old, Helen was quite sure no one would want to hire an “old woman,” so she didn’t bother with a job search. However, Bob Runkle had read in the paper that she got her Masters, so he called her up. He had been working with a young man, Pat, who was sent to the mental institution in Independence, Iowa, when his parents died, and wasn’t able to live on his own. Bob believed that Helen had the ability to get him out of there.

Helen eagerly began this exciting job at a time when others are way past retirement. She now had a college degree to do what just came naturally for her. She became Pat’s friend! Bob got a grant to pay her to work with Pat; Helen was earning a living and felt like she was doing fairly well financially. She has always lived life “full-out,” but now was actually receiving a salary!

Helen had met Pat before and knew he was a wonderful piano player. Even though he didn’t need to look at the music to play, she had given him some sheet music because he loved having new songs. Helen knew all she had to do was to bring out the confident man inside and she did this through music. They became quite a traveling duo with many engagements, Helen playing the organ and Pat playing along on the piano. Pat earned his independence and moved into an apartment on his own. He was asked to play piano programs and went out on his own to many different places.

One day, as Pat and Helen were traveling together, he asked her if she was actually getting paid to work with him. He was half mad when Helen told him she was. He said, “I always thought you did it because you liked me and wanted to help me.” Which of course, she did.

Before he died, he asked her in the car, as they were driving a long, “Do you consider me one of your success stories?” She responded, “The biggest!” One day, after Pat hadn’t shown up for several of his appointments, someone called Helen because they were concerned. She contacted his niece, who dropped what she was doing and raced to his apartment to find him dead. He always kept a little notebook he carried in his pocket and wrote down every new song he learned from Helen. When he died, the family gave Helen the notebook, which had 100 songs. He was shooting for a thousand. “Helen knows at least a 1000 songs,” Pat would tell people.

When I told her I want to be just like her when I “grow up,” she said, “Prepare to be old.” She’s very young at heart and I told her I didn’t think she was old. “I have always been pretty lively. I used to tell people, ‘always be positive.’ When I was 28 I had a little time of being down. My father, bless his soul, said that when you are 25, your life is half over. After I reached that I was depressed because I hadn’t accomplished any of the things that I had always wanted. My good friend, Margaret Dravis, decided I was depressed. She gave me The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale. When I read that book, I guess I took it to heart, because I was never depressed again.”

Helen is a believer that we can change our minds and situations with our thinking. “Whenever I am asked what my guiding principle is,” says Helen, “I have always replied, I am positive. BE POSITIVE!”

Helen has written a book, and numerous poems, in addition to songs. Although they haven’t been published, she has touched the hearts of those who have been privileged to spend time with her. One such lucky fellow is a man who found himself at Ravenwood Care Center following a very tragic automobile accident.

David Barber describes the first time he met Helen. “After my accident, I couldn’t walk, so they took me to the dining room to eat. I heard Helen playing the piano in the dining room. She impressed me so much. Her hands just flowed over the keys; the music just trickled out of her. I was sitting there and decided to get up and walk so I could talk to this magic making woman. So I got up and walked!

“I was in love with her from the word GO. I have asked her many times to marry me. She believes in long engagements, but I told her, ‘I don’t know if I can wait 28 years until I reach 100, but I am willing to try!’ God brought us together and I feel my purpose is to make each day as happy for her as I can. We cheer each other up—if I’m feeling down, she says something that makes me laugh. We don’t let the sad and weary people around us get us down. Life is a choice. I never grew up, I just got old. Helen makes each day worth living. I can’t believe my luck, now I am even on an iPod doing this recording!”

Helen says that music has provided her the opportunity to meet many people. And there have been many men in her life over the years, since the death of her husband. However, she hasn’t enjoyed any of them as much as David!

At the nursing home, they are always hearing “just wait.” What Helen doesn’t like is when they say, “You stop and wait here.” Often, they get busy and don’t come back for a while. David says, “Ok, see you a week from Tuesday.”

If you stop into Ravenwood some day and the resident choir is practicing, you’ll get to hear Helen rocking that piano. When I visit, I love to go to the dining room and listen to her play. “What would you like to hear?” she asks. She can play anything I mention, even if I have to hum a few bars to get her going, and then she’ll take off like she’s been playing for over 90 years!!!!

Helen’s career is unstoppable as well. In her words, “I spent years of delight with the newborns at Schoitz Hospital. Now I am spending years with the Alzheimers patients at Ravenwood Rehab. Somewhat similar! I don’t have to change the diapers though. Thank God! The aids do that now.”

I will always have a piece of Helen in my heart for the rest of my life. She will always be there to cheer me up when I need encouragement. A positive melody of Love, that’s Helen.