Interview Date: 11:20 a.m. November 14, 2013 at Grace Episcopal Church, St. Helena.
Jan: Welcome, Helen. Can you start by telling us where you were born?
Helen: I’ll tell you specifically where I was born. I was born in my parents’ home, 1350 Oak Avenue, St. Helena. I was early and they didn’t expect me to be born that soon, and so that’s where I was born.
J: OK, then what were some of your earliest memories?
H: Well, my father’s grocery store, I remember that. I was pretty young, and he had a grocery store on Main St. This isn’t necessarily chronological order, is that ok?
J: That’s ok. It doesn’t have to be chronological
H: I remember being pretty little, and climbing up on a stool so I could reach the counter, and sit on top of the stool. I remember that. I remember St. Helena, the growing up years, it was such a quiet wonderful community. My parents didn’t seem to worry about… not worry about where we were, but I remember being very young and going into all the stores or visiting people when I was at the store with my parents. I would go into the PG&E store and they’d always welcome me. Everybody knew everyone, and it was quiet, and slow-paced. Because everybody knew everyone, and it was a small community, people cared about each other, and helped each other. So I have lovely memories about that.
I can think of some of the stores on Main Street that I would go into, or my sister would go to. There was a saloon called Gigi’s. We had a lot of saloons in town in those years. It was, let’s see, it would be in the building where that chocolate shop is now, next door to Vasconi’s. But it seemed to me it was much greater, like it was two store-fronts. But anyway, there was a bar in the front and an ice cream parlor in the back. So no one thought anything of children going in the saloon, walking through the saloon to the back so they could get an ice cream cone. I remember that. And across the street from where Vasconi’s is now, on the corner, was another store. Now what was his name… It was also a little bar, much smaller than Mickey’s. Oh my gosh, I can’t remember, the name of his store, the name of the man. But he was like a little Irish man, and he had a smile on his face. And children could go in there too. There was a bar where men would be in there drinking. As you entered the saloon, on the left side, that whole wall, which to me seemed like a gigantic wall, which it wasn’t, were shelves of penny candy. And so you’d save your pennies and you’d go in there and be able to choose what you wanted. So that’s a wonderful memory.
Jan: Tell me a little bit about your parents, and where they came from and how they got established in St. Helena.
Helen: My parents were born and raised in Greece. My father, at a young age, I don’t know how young he was, left Greece. He wanted to go to America, to find his fortune, I guess. I don’t know the years that he did that. They were 20 years apart in age, my parents. So my father lived here, not here in St. Helena, but in, I believe, Vallejo and was in partnership with a couple of men in a grocery store. At some point in his life, he decided to go back to Greece to visit his parents. He hadn’t gone back before, and I really don’t know how many years had passed, because I think he was quite a young man when he came here.
So when he was visiting his parents… my mother and he lived in neighboring villages. And of course, he was 20 years older, so he didn’t know her, but the families knew each other. The villages weren’t that far apart. So in those years, marriages, at least in the Greek country, were arranged. You didn’t go out on dates. So however that came to be, I remember my mother telling me that the two families got together, where my father’s family came to my mother’s family’s house. The point was for him to meet her; I guess the parents had arranged this. My mother was the eldest of nine children, and a custom in the Greek tradition was that no other child could get married unless the older child got married first. So my mother, bless her heart, she was so cute, told me that she had many suitors, but her father did not approve of any of them.
So here comes Nicholas Paris, and as they were introduced, this was my mother’s reaction: He took her hand, and he squeezed her hand, and supposedly she felt… whatever, within her, that this was the man she wanted to marry. So she told her father and mother, I guess when they asked her, that yes, she would like… because he proposed to the family… that she wanted to marry him. So that was in November, I don’t know the day, the year, it was the late 1920’s, just about the time of the Depression, I guess. I’m not sure, but the time doesn’t matter anyway. They were married on January 1st, less than two months later. They stayed in Greece, stayed there in the village for six months, and traveled here by boat to America. She said that she had never been apart from her family at all, in any way. And she said that leaving was terribly hard for her, and she was sick all the way on the boat coming over here.
And then they traveled by land, I don’t know, by train, I have no idea how, and came to St. Helena. Well, they must have gone to Vallejo first, then he decided to sell his partnership and open a grocery store here in St. Helena, where Keller’s used to be, but it wasn’t Keller’s then, in that area. Then years later he sold that, he was in partnership with three other men through the later years of the Depression, and then decided to… he bought that which is now Goodman’s, that designated place, I don’t know who was in there then, and began another grocery store. It was kind of innovative in his concept of what he wanted to do.
My father worked. I hardly ever saw him. I was the youngest of three children. I was quite young and I have a few memories of my dad because my mom said he worked 15-16 hours a day. But I do remember that I felt then, and it’s never left me, that I was raised just in a circle of love. I was surrounded by love by my parents. I’ve always had that feeling of being cared for and nourished and nurtured. There were really hard difficult times because it was those years that getting money wasn’t easy; people didn’t have a lot of money, but it didn’t matter. And to tell you the truth, I don’t remember having any toys. I had one doll that my godmother gave me, but I didn’t feel like I was deprived. I don’t remember how old I was, but I remember my father would bring cardboard boxes home because I wanted to build. So I would build little things in my parents garage. I remember sitting on the back porch of my parents’ house on Oak Street and cutting out… I don’t know how I did this… shaping my foot, the impression of my feet on cardboard, to make shoes. Silly kind of thing. Anyway, I have wonderful memories of that.
I was nine when my dad died after a horrible bout with cancer. My mom then a year later could not keep the store. That was a whole other story. A fellow, from somewhere else, not a St. Helenan, came and literally forced my mother out. He bought the building, and wouldn’t rent to her any longer because he wanted his brother to have it. It turned out better that she didn’t keep it, but she couldn’t anyway run the store. He hardly paid her anything for the business because she wasn’t educated, couldn’t read or write. She spoke English pretty well, but she was a little Greek peasant lady, loving, kind. So, she took in ironing. She used to iron for people in the community, because that was how she could make a living.
My brother then was quite a bit older and had left home, gone into the service and then college. So we babysat, my sister and I, when we were real young. We babysat and we loved doing it, and we never thought… it was just something we did and we knew, without words being spoken, that we were contributing to the family and to food. We didn’t think of it that way, it was just something you did.
My sister worked at the Model Bakery. It was the Model Bakery then, in those years. Then she wanted to get a job when she was older, at the five and dime, which was owned by Joanne Kirkpatrick Sale’s parents. So when she got that job, I took her job at the Model Bakery. They hired me at 11 ½ years old. In those years you could get a work permit. I’m astounded now that they even did that. But they did. So I had a job there working through my young age, up till I was a junior in high school. Then I got a job at the Candy Kitchen. The Candy Kitchen, where was it? So you know where the alley is? If you’re going down the alley, east toward Main Street, directly on the right, that building was Goodman’s, the original Goodman’s. On the left, on the corner, was the Candy Kitchen. It was designed in such a way that the man who owned it made ice cream, homemade ice cream, and he was right there in the front, in the window. So you could pass by and you could see the fellow making ice cream. And as kids, we would go in there and get ice cream. So anyway, when I worked at the Candy Kitchen at age 16, I took that job because I wanted to go to college, so I needed to make a little bit more money. (14:59) So that was a wonderful experience.
Jan: So you went to college after that?
Helen: I did. I was so grateful to be able to do that. It was much cheaper then, I went to San Francisco State. But the only way I could do it was to live with my sister and her husband and their children. They were so good to have me do that because then it cut down on the cost. I have always been very grateful to my sister and her husband for that. That was a mind-boggling experience, going there, because my traveling was minimal. Our home was here in St. Helena, my parents didn’t have a car, and we really didn’t go anywhere. If we had to go to Calistoga or Napa or Vallejo, where some relatives lived, we took the bus. So it was quite an experience. I literally felt like a country girl going to a big school. But then you adjust and get used to it. I was inspired by a couple of people when I was a sophomore to go into the teaching profession. That was something I didn’t think I’d ever want to do, but then I did. So I’m very grateful for that.
But life here was wonderful. I’m sure everyone thinks that about their growing up years maybe. St. Helena, of course, was a special place for me, filled with memories. I remember, as a kid, there wasn’t really any worry about their kids. I don’t know, I assume it was that way for other parents. I didn’t have a lot of kids to play with, other than at school, because our neighborhood didn’t have a lot of kids. But that was all right; I didn’t think I was missing anything. I do remember playing Kick the Can on summer nights on, it’s Money Way now, behind the backs of all the stores on Main Street. That used to be fun. Then the baseball games over here (pointing to Carpy Field). I don’t know, we did lots of fun things.
Jan: You talked a little about the Depression and how that affected your family. How about World War II? How did that affect your family?
Helen: Oh, I was still pretty young then, but I do remember, my father apparently belonged to St. Helena Rotary, and I don’t know if they did this through Rotary, but they used to do, during the war, in communities in the United States, mock air raids. I remember being very frightened this one time because it was a mock air raid. Everybody had to have dark curtains or shades to pull down in your house. My father volunteered to be a wounded person. They brought a stretcher to the house, and they had to put him on the stretcher. I remember crying; I was very upset because I didn’t understand what was happening. So we were affected in those ways. Life was hard in those years. For people who went through the Depression, and I didn’t experience that the way they did, but it was an imprint that was placed on, not just my family, but all families. Because for people who had been through the Depression, through hard times, it had affected them so much that even in their adult lives, they lived still with the mindset of being so careful with foods, the use of properties… at least the people who didn’t have any money. I don’t know about the others. I remember that about my dad, if that answers your question.
Jan: So what kind of changes… I know there have been enormous changes…
Helen: Yeah, there have been.
Jan: So what positive changes… what negative changes…
Helen: You know, from my own perspective, when change happens, for anybody, when you’re moving from a cherished way of living and a mode of living is comfortable, and then change begins to happen, there’s always a bit of a regret because the old is going and the new is coming, and it’s just the adjustment to the new. Living here now, and coming back here and teaching, me and Jack, raising our children, I can’t say that there’s anything that I dislike about the changes. It’s just getting used to it. The changes, as far as building homes, the upgrading they’ve done on businesses on Main Street, I think it’s been all positive, I really do. I do hope we don’t become… I hope there’s not a whole lot of new houses being built, encroaching on the vineyards. But I think they’ve done really well about that. I can’t say that I regret. It hasn’t changed my good memories. Change is going to happen, as long as it’s positive, and planned well, it’s ok.
Jan: Let’s go back a talk about after you finished school. Did you immediately come back here and teach school?
Helen: No, I didn’t. That’s a good question. My sister and her husband and children, and I, lived in Daly City, so I did my student teaching in Daly City. I was very fortunate to do student teaching in a school that was a very innovative school. The design was innovative. It was in a circle, and it was at the top of one of the hills in a housing development, a very nice housing development in Daly City. Vista Mar it was called. I did my student teaching there with a wonderful first grade teacher. Oh, my gosh! She just prepped me; she guided me. I’m very grateful to her. It was like six blocks from my sister and brother-in-law’s house. But the circular school, the whole concept of doing it in the round, was very unusual. It was a primary school.
Jan: And what year was that?
Helen: Let’s see, it was in the late 50’s probably ’59. So my student teaching was over and then I knew I needed to apply for a job, but I didn’t have to because they liked me enough, and the principal did, that they offered me a job. I loved it. So I taught there for two years and then decided to come home, which is something that surprised me because I never really wanted to come back and teach here; I wanted to be in a big city. But I had this sense that I needed to go home. So I went home. And in the spring of the second year that I was teaching in Daly City, I called our local school up and said, “Do you have any positions?” and they said yes, and I said OK. They had a Kindergarten position open and they said, “You’re hired.” I didn’t have to go through an interview. It was Mr. Harris and he knew me and I knew the school. So that’s how I got in. It’s remarkable now to me.
I made that decision in January of that second year, and I met Jack in February, went out with him July 4th and a year later we were married. So it was one of those things; I’m still in awe of how it happened.
Jan: You met him here?
Helen: Yeah, well through a friend. He lived in Napa and I lived here.
Jan: So then you taught Kindergarten?
Helen: I taught Kindergarten for a little more than a year. No, Jan, I’m confused. We got married in 1960, so I came here in 1959, taught a year, we were married in June of ’60 and our first child was born in July of 1961. But in April I stopped teaching because I was so big… small, but big! Does that make sense?
Jan: And then when did you go back to teaching?
Helen: I went back when John was in first grade. And the same thing happened about my teaching. I feel so grateful, Jan. I applied, and Mal MacDonald was there then, I talked to him and I applied… You know how we do interviews now?… It wasn’t like that at all, so I felt very… I was very grateful. Julie had one more year before she started Kindergarten, so my mom took care of Julie. It was so wonderful! When John was finished for the day, he’d go over to my mom’s house and stay there, so having her nearby was a blessing. (27:46)
Jan: So did you and Jack always live in the house on Vineyard Ave?
Helen: We lived in a house on Adams Street, two doors up from the corner of Adams and Stockton that was owned by Patty and George Kelperis. George Kelperis was Greek, Patty was not. One of the very few families that were Greek. We didn’t have many Greek families; we were the only ones in St. Helena. So we rented that; that was our first house that we rented. Jack was working in Napa, no, he was working at Mare Island, and then he bought a service station in Napa with Bill Magree who was a California resident, children with Jack. So we moved to Napa and bought our first little house there. Then we wanted to move back here when John was in first grade, and bought that house (on Vineyard Ave.) that was owned by Hazel Jensen, proprietor of Jensen funeral home, she and her husband owned it. She owned that house that was bequeathed to her by an Italian family, and so she never lived in it, she rented it. So when we decided to come back here to live, we began house hunting and it was difficult to find houses that were cheap enough… not at all like now. There was a house on Charter Oak Avenue, a very old house, two story, well it’s two doors up from you… two or three doors up from you, and they were offering it for $25,000, and it needed a lot of work. So we thought, ok, maybe we’re not supposed to come up here. My mother said that she would ask Mrs. Jensen, because they were friends, if she wanted to sell her house. We said, “Oh that would be great. That’s such a nice house.” We’d never been in it, but we thought it would be nice. So she asked her and she said no, she didn’t want to sell it. So two weeks later, she called my mother, early in the morning, like 5:00 in the morning, and said she had changed her mind. We were thrilled! Do you know how much we bought that house for? Oh my God! $19,000! She didn’t want to go through the bank; she wanted to carry the loan. So she did, and the house payments were very fair. I don’t think it was $100… it was $90 a month. So I was ready to go back to teaching at about that time because the kids were getting older. So we decided if I went back to teaching, I could help pay for the house, which I did. Jack never wanted any debt, ever, ever, which I’m grateful for. So by my going back to teaching, which I was ready to do, and I loved it, we were able to pay off the house. So it was wonderful. Mrs. Jensen, Gertrude Jensen, was a huge part of our moving back up here. I’m always grateful to her.
Jan: So one of the questions also, is “What people or institutions had an impact on your life?” You’ve talked about Mrs. Jensen, but what about institutions?
Helen: I would say the institution of St. Helena Elementary School. (32:42) They did not have a kindergarten when I was ready to go to kindergarten. There was a convent at the end of Oak Avenue which is now the property of RLS (Middle School). There was a convent there and a school and my parents sent me there. It was a wonderful experience; I remember it. Then I started first grade at the (St. Helena) Elementary School. I had this dear sweet Miss Wells for my first grade teacher, Miss Barnett for second grade, Miss Welch for third grade, Miss Dowdell, she’s in the archives I know, for fourth grade, Mrs. Mitchell, she’s in the archives too, her house is up here (pointing). Miss Tuttle’s house was on Silvera; I’ll tell you about that. And Mrs. Dufore for sixth grade; she’s the one who impressed me the most. She was wonderful.
I have to tell you this too. Next door to us was the library, a big library, the Carnegie Building. Oh my gosh, this has brought up so much! I don’t know how Mrs. Anderson put up with me! Mrs. Dufore was her daughter and Mrs. Anderson was the librarian. You’d walk into the St. Helena Library, and it was very quiet, except for the clock. It wasn’t a floor clock, it was a wall clock, but it was big. I call it a Grandfather clock that was softly loud when it would chime. I realize now, Jan Bradley, that the sound was comforting to me. I never realized that before. In many ways the library was a haven. We didn’t have a lot of kids living around us and I would go there and devour books. And Mrs. Anderson, I don’t know how young I was when she let me do this, she’d let me come into her little cubicle there and help her with the cards. I was so young, I didn’t know what I was doing. I learned about alphabetizing from her. So I spent a lot of time there. I know my siblings did too. It was a wealth of information. I loved that. I forgot all about that! Oh my gosh, this brings up so many memories!
Another memory it brings up is the library and the sidewalk in front of our house. The library had kind of a circular walk, like it does now. I never had a bicycle; I would ride my brother’s when he discarded it, when he was older. One of my very favorite things, I had a pair of skates. I think my brother bought them for me for Christmas one year. And I used to skate back and forth, back and forth in that little circular, oval, no, horseshoe, I guess. And I spent a lot of time doing things like that. Anyway, that’s a lot. Sorry.
Jan: I know this is going to be hard for you to talk about, but how have you contributed to the St. Helena Community?
Helen: Well, I think I can say this, not in a boasting way, that it wasn’t entirely from me. Being a teacher, the privilege of being a teacher, and the privilege of being able and in provision of being able by being able to go to college, and the gift of being able to live with my sister and her husband so I could do that, and the gift of the education, and the gift of being really inspired to be a teacher. That was because of two friends of mine. In those years, when you went to college, you didn’t declare a major when you first went, you declared a major when you became a junior. So at the end of your sophomore year, you really had to think about what you were going to declare. I had two friends, and each of them was older than I, one was two years older, and the other was going into the teaching program. They were so stoked about doing this; they were an inspiration to me. And when I began my education classes, I tell you Jan, something came over me. I was so inspired! That was meant to be, that path was meant to be. Then, to be able to come back here, I was very grateful for my experience teaching at that Vista Mar, but to come back here for the reasons we came back here, (Jack and the children), to teach in the same school that I attended, I just thought that was really something. I was in awe of that. 40:09
Jan: So how many years did you teach at St. Helena Elementary?
Helen: Thirty. Well, I can say this without boasting, that I contributed to the education of the children that came to me. And I say that because of responses I have gotten from them over the years and the effect this had on their lives, that they told me about. But I can turn that around and say that it’s a two way street, because those children formed me in so many ways. And I will be forever grateful to them. So whatever I was able to give to them, I was able to receive back a million fold. I’m very grateful.
Jan: One of the questions is, “What are your feelings about St. Helena, about living here?” But I think you’ve clearly expressed that.
Is there anything that you can think of that you would like to share? (42:36)
Helen: Let’s see.
Jan: You’ve had quite a few years here at Grace Church, too. Do you want to talk a little about that? Did you always go to Grace Church or did you go to another church as a child?
Helen: Oh that’s a good question. No, I didn’t. I was raised as a Greek Orthodox, but there was not a Greek Orthodox church nearby, and when we would attend services, the very few would be at Christmas time or Easter in Vallejo. That didn’t happen… I don’t remember ever going with my dad. That was after he died, and relatives would come up and take us. But that was not very often because of the distance. So my father, his burial service was through this church, and I’m assuming it was arranged, very kindly… I don’t know who arranged it, but a Greek priest came from the Bay Area and performed the ceremony in Grace Episcopal Church, and he (my dad) is buried in St. Helena Cemetery. My mother’s burial service was through the Episcopal Church too, by a Greek priest that we had come up. Then I began coming to church with my mother in my early teens. She was kinda involved through friends here, through the Episcopal Women. I sang in the choir here. So that was my younger years. So you’re asking about now?
Jan: Were you and Jack married here?
Helen: We were married here by a Greek priest. John Bogart was the Episcopal priest here and he was so excited that we would do this. Jack was Lutheran, and it was all right with him, and my mother really wanted us to be married in the Greek Orthodox, and I did too. So it was fine. It was a wonderful, authentic, Greek Orthodox wedding. It was so nice. We began attending church regularly and had our children baptized in the Episcopal church and we attended regularly and our children attended.
Jan: I remember Jack teaching Sunday School, the Jr. High kids, I think?
Helen: Yes. He did. He really loved that.
Jan: And you’ve pretty much done everything here, at one time or another?
Helen: (Laughing) Yeah, I suppose so. It’s an important part of my life, this church. And to be back here now, doing what I’m doing, was not by my doing. I know that I was directed here. I told you about how I stopped teaching, didn’t I?
Jan: You told me, but let’s tell the tape.
Helen: Oh, I don’t know if they want to know that…
Jan: Oh sure!
Helen: Okay, well, it was in 1997, and one afternoon, May 15, 1997, I’ll never forget that day. I was in my 5th grade classroom (teaching), the same classroom I had third grade in (as a student). It was wonderful, being in that room. So it was in the afternoon, and the children were all occupied doing an art lesson. It was very quiet in the room. It was a very particular kind of lesson; I don’t know if you remember how we used to do that. We did a lot of prep for it. Anyway, so it was quiet and I was walking the perimeter of the room toward my closet in the back to get some more chalk material, and as I was approaching that closet, I heard a voice, an audible voice, from my right shoulder, my right ear, say to me these words, “It’s time.” And I kinda laughed out loud, and I said, “Yeah, it is,” knowing exactly what the voice was telling me. Then I looked around the classroom to see, ‘cause I thought, “Did they hear what I heard?” Nobody was disturbed; nobody heard anything. And of course the voice wasn’t out loud, audible, I mean it couldn’t have been. But I heard it, and I knew what it meant. I knew that it was time for me not to teach any more. You know, when a teacher teaches for a lot of years, you know that you’re going to stop teaching. But I had no plans for stopping to teach. I knew that it would come one day, but I didn’t think of it like, “Oh, I need a plan for that year.”
It was about a half hour before release time, so the children put everything away and all that, and they left. And I was just sideswiped because I did not know what that meant. It was on a Thursday afternoon and I didn’t know what to do, so I started to cry in my classroom. I thought, I don’t want to stop teaching. I love teaching! So I was very concerned and I was very emotional about it. We went home, and Jack came home and I told him about it and I was just crying and crying. He said, “You don’t have to stop teaching. Don’t worry about it.” And I said, “Yes, I do! I don’t know why, but I do. I have to stop teaching and I have to tell my principal.” He said, “Well, if you think you have to do that, why don’t you just wait the weekend.” I said okay. And remember, what was her name, that principal that came after Ruth Reynolds?
Helen: Marla! So Monday afternoon I made an appointment, and I thought, “This woman is going to think I’m nuts, telling her this!” I told her exactly what happened. And she said, “No, well, Helen, you can’t leave.” Well, what else was she going to say? “You can’t stop teaching, Helen, we really need you here, blah, blah…” I said, “Well, Marla, I waited over the weekend and my impression is still this is something I feel like I have to do. I don’t understand it, but I have to do it.” So long story short, by the end she said, well, at least take the rest of the week and think about it, which I did, but at this time I felt very committed because here it was the end of May and they have to make plans for next year. So that’s what happened. It was very painful in so many ways, because it was grieving. It was a loss. You just really grieve. I didn’t know what the heck I was going to do because I didn’t have any plans. I didn’t know what was ahead, but I knew I could not ignore what that voice said. It was that strong.
Then in the fall, I think it was the end of September, Mac said, why don’t you come down to the office, Helen, and, you know, stick around, and help out with things if you want, answer the phone and whatever. There was a woman that was already working there, but he wanted me to come, so I did. And little by little, I just kind of segued in to that part of the life of Grace Church. You know, I knew people, people I didn’t know, I was just led to… People would come in and want to talk to me if they had a problem. I don’t know, the rest is history, Jan. It just evolved that way. I’m still shaking my head about it, that that experience happened, and that I’m still here doing what I…. I can say it honestly without any kind of pride in like, “Oh look what I’m doing.” It’s not that at all. I know that I’ve been formed to do a certain work here. I can finally say that, knowing that it’s true, but not having any, “Oh look what I can do”. What is that word?
Helen: Is that what it is?
Jan: I know what you do here, but for the tape, would you explain what it is you do here?
Helen: I’ve finally just been able to say this, because I know this work is not directed by me, but by God. He uses me to pastor; He uses me to guide people spiritually. He is using me to pray for people and to love people. But how could I not, you know? We’re all loved so much; we have to pay back. I’m very grateful.
Jan: So, is there anything else you want to add?
Helen: Um, what could I add? I don’t know of anything.
Jan: All right. Thank you very much for doing this. It’s wonderful.
Helen: You’re welcome. Thank you.