Helen Russell celebrates 100 years of tough living, chasing dreams
March 9, 2010
By Chantelle Lusebrink
Helen Russell has accomplished a lot in her life. After all, she’s been around for a century.
Russell celebrated her 100th birthday Nov. 22. It was a day she won’t ever forget.
“My daughter-in-law threw a party to end all parties,” Helen said of Judy Russell, wife of her younger son Alan. “She took an 80-year-old address book and started writing invitations.
“If you want a party, get Judy.”
There were more than 100 people who came to help her celebrate her birthday, including her three granddaughters and three great-grandchildren.
Cousins, friends, family and neighbors came, said her older son, Mac Russell.
“It didn’t last long enough,” he said. “There were too many people who hadn’t seen her, or we hadn’t seen, in 20 years.”
Her birthday was certainly a sight to behold, she said. But of all the things that Helen said she has been most blessed to witness, it was the end of World War I that has stayed with her the most.
“When we heard the war was over, we went to the yard that had a flag pole and saluted the flag,” she said.
A rocky start
To reach 100, Helen has had to weather her fair share of lumps, bumps and bruises, she said.
Her father left when she was only 12, leaving her to help her mother raise her sister and brother and attend college at the University of Washington.
“I admire the fact she worked her way through college without her father and family help,” Mac Russell said. “Her mother was a single mom and she was very, very strict and she pushed and pushed those kids — especially my mom, being the oldest.”
But a month prior to her graduation, Helen recalls, Black Monday struck Wall Street and the Great Depression began.
After interviewing for endless jobs and taking any part-time work — even serving dinner for a night at a socialite’s home — Helen finally found a stable job in 1934. The worst part was it paid two-thirds of what she had been making in college, without her degree.
In 1936, she married a Scottish soccer player, James MacFarland Russell.
“He was a good man and he was just cute,” she said, smiling at the thought of her husband of 48 years. “Like Gregory Peck.”
They had two sons, Mac, born in 1936, and Alan, born in 1943.
It was a struggle for the family, even after the Depression ended. James spent the majority of their life together afflicted with polio, leaving Helen to care for the two boys and work at Boeing “shuffling papers” in engineering, she said. James died in 1984.
When she could, she would travel to Europe, Asia and Russia, but her favorite place in the world is Seattle.
She also developed a keen interest in local politics while living in West Seattle and helped Jim Ellis, founder of the Forward Thrust campaign in the late ’60s, push the area’s most aggressive transit and recreational facilities ballot measure in the county.
“I was putting up signs, gathering signatures for the petition and pounding on doors,” she said. “He was my god and I worked like a dog on that campaign.”
Stepping into high gear
Though her early life was hard, “the last part of it has been the best part, because I haven’t been sick and I’ve never had so many honors heaped on me,” she said.
In 2007, she was awarded with an athletic letter from the University of Washington as one of the first women baseball players to participate in college athletics in the school’s history. Helen Russell was given the letter along with nearly 200 other female athletes, of which she was the oldest at 97.
Her affiliation with the university has been lifelong, Judy Russell said.
“She has always kept learning new things,” she said. “Even though she’d graduated, she has kept going back there to learn about new things and more things by taking classes.
“I think that is what has kept her going,” her thirst for knowledge, she added.
Helen Russell has also been awarded with several honors in the world of haiku literature.
The biggest challenge today, “is being blind and almost deaf,” she said. “When you’re blind, you’re cut off.
“I try to keep my mind occupied and my biggest pleasure is writing haiku.”
She began writing haiku poetry with the Vashon Island Mondays at Three haiku group, but has been a member with Haiku Northwest since moving to the Eastside.
“She is well-loved among our group,” said Tanya McDonald, president of Haiku Northwest. “She tries to come to every meeting and she writes some incredibly insightful haiku that really captures the breadth of her life and the changes she’s seen.
“She has a very unique perspective that she brings to the group and we admire her a great deal.”
Her friends in both groups have published a book of her work, called “Distant Sounds,” a collection of her best work. For the book, Helen Russell won the Haiku Society of American’s 2009 Mildred Kanterman Memorial Merit Book Award.
Helen said there is one thing she would re-do in her life, if she could.
“I would have been a better mother,” she said.
Mac Russell said he wished they had spent more time as a family together, too, but that was the way things were then.
“She didn’t have a lot of time. My dad had polio and she had to work, so there was not a lot of time for the family,” he said. “But back in those times, kids took care of themselves.”
It did make him a stronger person, he said, now the owner of a successful business.
Mac Russell said he admires his mother for what she’s been through and her mental toughness.
“She doesn’t let her emotions carry her away,” he said. “She doesn’t let them dictate the decisions she’s made.”
With that fortitude, Helen has survived a century. When the chips were down and life dealt her bad hands, it was her dreams that kept her going.
“When my life was hell, until lately, I always tried to follow my dreams,” she said. “That has paid off, but it took a long time. I don’t want to tell others they have to work their whole life to have them pay off, but I would say follow your dreams no matter what.”
Chantelle Lusebrink: 392-6434, ext. 241 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.