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Death of a Lady


Posted By: Joanne Breen (email)
Date: 9/9/2023 at 15:47:14

Death Of A Lady

Helen Wilson died last week. She was “Helen” to strangers and acquaintances, “Patsy” to friends, and “Miss Wilson” to several generations of high school students who had her for the rare benefit of being her English students. She died Wednesday, October 28, 1981, at the age of 91.

I was one of those high school students who had her for English teacher. Although, my parents were good friends of hers and referred to her as “Patsy”, I could not bring myself to call her anything but “Miss Wilson” for full twenty years after graduation. Even when we served together on the board of the public library, I could not bring myself to call her Patsy. I finally came to call her Helen; I think she understood my problem; she had met it before.

Helen Wilson was a Lady, with a capital L. there are few women today, even our most distinguished, to whom we would naturally accord that word of courtesy and respect. She was well bred; she was well educated; she had all that our great grandparents would have referred to as "the accomplishments"; she was marvelously well read; she was skilled in art, music, needlework, cookery, conversation; she was poised, at ease, courteous in any social situation; she was a perfect hostess – whether at a high tea, a formal dinner or a pick-up lunch for unexpected company. Her speech was a delight: her grammar perfect, her diction exquisite. To be around Helen Wilson was to have some of the rough edges rubbed off yourself.

Miss Wilson (for I’m thinking of her now as a teacher) had a very considerable education. She was better educated than most who sport M.A.’s and Ph.D.’s after their names. She graduated from Washington high school, attended Southern Junior College in Georgia, Ward-Belmont in Tennessee; she graduated with honors from Iowa State College (1920) and later attended summer school sessions at the Universities of Iowa and Colorado.
Miss Wilson was never the most popular teacher in Washington high school; she was far to demanding of her students for that; but she was unquestionably one of the most effective. Hundreds, now adult, can thank her that they know the difference between rise and raise. Slips in grammar did not pass unnoticed in her classroom, they were corrected emphatically, unmistakably and on the spot. She knew what past-participles were and insisted on their use; such as barbarism as “I haven’t ate yet” would bring a stinging rebuke to its unfortunate perpetrator. She was a tough teacher, but you came out of her class with better English than you went in.

Helen Wilson first taught in Washington high school in 1920. Her last full-time year was 1950-51, although she taught half-time in 1951-52; thirty-one years of exemplary, dedicated teaching. Since that time – how many high school Class Reunions she attended as an honored guest can only be conjectured; certainly she averaged more than two or three a year. For it was only after graduation that most of her students began to realize what she had given them, the loving determination with which she had devoted herself to their education. The appreciation came, but it took time.

In 1926 Patsy was appointed by the mayor a trustee of the Washington Public Library. She became chairman of the board of trustees in 1939; a position which she filled with distinction until her retirement in 1979. I cannot believe that in all the public library’s more than a century of existence it has had a trustee who devoted to it more time, attention and personal service than did Patsy Wilson. All the librarians who served under her will testify to the staunch support and endless hours of personal assistance she gave them. The gallery on the second floor is well named in her honor. Even more than to Jane A. Chilcote, who donated the first public library building, the Washington Public Library is a memorial to Patsy Wilson.

Of late years, her deep interest was in Conger House. “Conger House” was once Col. C.J. Wilson residence, her home, the home where she grew up in and lived so many years of her life. When it was first proposed that it be restored to its antique glory and become a museum and memorial to the Washington of “time past”, she was instantly and actively involved. Almost all her own beautiful furniture from the old house was donated and returned to the “new” house. She was active in supervising every detail of its restoration. And, near the end, when it became possible for the non-profit Conger House Corporation to acquire ownership of the property, it was her generous gift of money that brought it about.

Helen “Patsy” Wilson was my dear and personal friend; a friendship dating to high school freshman days when she directed the first home talent play in which I appeared. I admired and respected her as a teacher because I couldn’t fool her; I couldn’t bluff in her class; she had me “figured: - and I admired her for that. She gave me my first glimpse of Shakespeare, my first dim understanding of poetry, my first conception of how language was put together. She was one of a mere half-dozen teachers in my entire life who truly "opened windows" in my mind.

What can I do in remembrance of Helen Wilson? I think I will give a fine book or a good painting to the library in her memory; I believe she would like that and think it appropriate. But the choice – that will be difficult. Her interests were so wide, so varied, so catholic! The selection will demand long and earnest thought as befits a gift for a great and lovely Lady. -DRE

Source: Washington Evening Journal, November 5, 1981

Transcribed by Deborah Johnson Wagner


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