‘Hugging Helen’ to celebrate 104th

Published 2:47 am Saturday, February 23, 2019

When Helen Hess stretches her memory as far as it will go, she covers at least a century.

“I vaguely remember a little house we lived in,” she said. “That takes me back to 3 years old.”

Mrs. Hess will celebrate her 104th birthday on Feb. 26. She plans to celebrate quietly with family.

The Villisca, Iowa, native grew up on a farm and began her education in a one-room schoolhouse. She and her siblings waked to school, event when temperatures were below zero.

“We just dressed warm,” she said. “Even little 5-year-olds  had to walk in the cold.”

The country school had little in the way of amenities.

“Two students had to walk to the nearest neighbor’s to get a bucket or water for our drinking water each day,” she recalled.

In the eighth grade, she transferred to the school in town.

“My sister was driving back and forth to high school,” she recalled. “Daddy decided I might as well ride with her.”

She and her siblings were responsible for farm chores, and made their own fun, she said.

“When I was 14, I got my baby brother,” she said. “I was responsible for most of the care of him. He was my love.”

After high school, Mrs. Hess went to a Methodist college, Simpson College, in Indianola, Iowa. She was studying to become a teacher.

“Daddy said I had to go to college to find a husband,” she said, adding that she was related to all of the young men who lived near her.

It didn’t take her long to accomplish that task. The first year, she met Glenn C.  Hess at a football game.

Glenn and Helen Hess on their wedding day.

She was 18 when the couple married. He was 22. The couple moved to Des Moines, and Glenn Hess joined the National Guard. In his notes, he said he sensed the inevitability of war. His wife says that might be true, but he also had another motive.

“He joined National Guard to play basketball,” she said.

When that inevitable war came, Mrs. Hess was a housewife with three children. Hess’s unit was mobilized in 1941, and Mrs. Hess and the couple’s children moved home to Villisca.

“I saw Glenn two weeks in four-and-a-half years,” Mrs. Hess said. “I worked in a dime store a friend of mine owned.”

Day in and day out, she said, members of the community listened to the radio, anxious for news of friends and family at the European front.

In 1946, Hess, now a major, returned home to get his family, and they moved to Germany, where he was assigned to the Army of the Occupation. They lived in Stuttgart, Mrs. Hess said.

Related story: Hess had sterling military career

“They were not prepared for families when we got there,” she said. “My family was one of the first there. We lived on dried milk and dried eggs until they found a house for us.”

Stuttgart was among the most bombed-out cities. Supplies were scarce in the post-war environment.

“I had to take Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs over to order supplies. You couldn’t even buy straight pins there,” she recalled.

She remembers the first time the commissary got fresh fruit.

“We were lined up down the block for bananas,” she said.

Because her husband had a car and driver, she managed in the community with few problems, and quickly learned to trade in the black market.

A carton of cigarettes from the commissary was worth $800 to trade,” she said.

“We went to the Italian Riviera. It cost us about five cartons of cigarettes,” she recalled. “When we left the hotel, we got money back, so we went on to Paris and Luxembourg.

Part of Mrs. Hess’s role, she said, was to serve as hostess for social events hosted by her husband and his boss.

“We used to entertain senators that would come over,” she said.

The family returned to the United States in 1948, and lived in Virginia while Hess worked in Washington, D.C. Later assignments took them to Newport, R.I., Norfolk, Va., Cambodia, Ft. Belvoir, Va., and Huntsville, Ala. He retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1962.

“I went with him every place but Cambodia,” she said. 

She didn’t have a favorite of those places.

“I’ve always liked wherever I’ve been,” she said. “I have always been content wherever I’ve been.”

When Lt. Col. Hess retired, the family remained in Virginia, where Mrs. Hess said her husband owned and managed property, and the couple  opened an art gallery and antique shop.

When asked about the changes she’s observed, she said, “I think of my mother a lot. We didn’t have water inside, and I can see my mother carrying buckets of water into kitchen. There would be a fire in the range, and she’d put water up into the range. When it was hot, she’d dip it out and carry it to the basement and pour hot, boiling water to the washing machine. “

The family also did not have electricity, but Mrs. Hess’s father had a generator he used to power a washing machine.

Clothes would freeze on the line in winter, she said.

“I think of those things, and I think of what we have now,” she said.

After her husband’s death at age 83 in 1994, Mrs. Hess decided to relocate. Her son Marvin was living in Andalusia.

“I sent them money to find me a house,” she said. “That was in ’96.

“That first Sunday I moved into the house, I had never been one to go to Sunday School, and I went to church very seldom. That first Sunday, I wanted to go to Sunday School.”

She chose First United Methodist, and she’s been there ever since. She was active in the church’s prayer shawl ministry, and made baby sweaters for all of the new babies in the church.

“If the church doors are open, she’s here,” Jane Barber said.

Mrs. Hess said she attributes her long life to a good foundation living on the farm.

“I’ve had good doctors, who prescribed the right medicine,” she said. “And I keep busy.  I don’t dare just sit and do nothing.”

Friends describe her as patient, and her church family fondly calls her “hugging Helen,” because she hugs everyone.

The Hesses had four children – Duane, Marvin, Patricia, and Vicki. Only Duane and Vicki are still alive. Mrs. Hess also has 11 grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren, and eight great-great grandchildren.