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She had an intense focus, an independent spirit, was kind and thoughtful, possessed serenity, and offered physical and spiritual nourishment. These are some of the attributes used to describe Helen C. White by her colleagues, students, and friends throughout her long career.
Born November 26, 1896 in New Haven, CT Ms. White talked and read early, excelled in school, and received top honors in college. Her accomplishments as a teacher, writer, humanist, and Catholic are chronicled on this website. She distinguished herself professionally and personally. Her scholarly works live on as classics in the field. Her former students remember her with awe and fondness. One such personal account is found in Toni McNaron’s memoir of Ms. White, The Purple Goddess.
At the beginning of her career at the University of Wisconsin-Madison she was simultaneously an assistant professor and a PhD candidate. “She spent every Saturday morning tutoring whoever came to her office, ‘almost to the neglect of my own graduate work. But I felt compelled to do what I could to get the boys (veterans of World War I) on their feet. Their English is incredible,’ she confided to her mother.” (1) Later in her career students sometimes felt that it was difficult to get her time unless she thought there was a great need, however she was always willing to lend a helping hand, even if it was money that was needed. Ms. White never married.
Ms. White died on June 7, 1967 in Norwood MA while visiting her sister. At her May 19, 1968 memorial service at St. Paul’s University Chapel (where she had attended morning mass daily), Mark H. Ingraham shared the following illuminations about Helen. [She had a] “breadth of knowledge,” did not have a limited area of investigation, “she was a splendid speaker with a superb voice, which she used with skill,” and was “meticulous about administrative niceties.” “Doubtless knew how distinguished she was. This did not cause resentment, for she treated her colleagues as if they were equally so–a compliment much more pleasing than humility would have been.”
There are other things about Ms. White that set her apart. While some of these things may have appeared outwardly eccentric, when explained they seemed to be the most logical things in the world. “‘I have four desks in my apartment,’ she once said. ‘One is for personal correspondence ; that is hopelessly littered and I never can find a thing in it [it was noted that she answered all of her mail]. The second one is for the notes for my books that I haven’t gotten around to writing yet. The third is for the work that must be cleaned up immediately, and the fourth is for typing.'” (2)
In addition, she almost always wore purple. It did not, as one rumor posited, have anything to do with her devotion to the Catholic Church. In reality it was to make packing for her many travels easier. She disliked black and felt that it did not suit her.
As Helen often said upon parting, “I hope our paths will cross again.”