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Phelan, Helene

“Archivist . . . author. . .  teacher. . . mother. . .friend. . . historian. . . mentor . . . hostess. . fellow quilter. . .

“Kind. . . wise. . gracious.. . thoughtful . . quiet . . patient . . brilliant . . . and always a lady. .  .”

These are just a few of the roles and words that only begin to describe the incomparable Helene Coogan Phelan, whose life and talents impacted this community, and the Almond Historical Society, immeasurably.  Among the group of the original founders of AHS, Helene, 93, died on March 21, 2004 in Hawaii, but the effects of her selfless dedication will live on for generations to come.

For more than twenty years, Helene taught English and Social Studies at Alfred Almond Central School, as well as heading up the drama department for several years. In a recent Evening Tribune article written by Rob Montana  and entitled “A legacy ends as Almond historian, author and teacher passes away, she was remembered by Ginger Wightman as “solid in her knowledge, in her subjects, literature, and use of the language.”  Mary Ellen Westlake, who also taught with Helene, termed her “one of the most brilliant teachers” she had known.  She explained: “She knew everything, so many facts about history, literature and art.  She was very committed to being helpful to all the kids – the brilliant ones and the ones that struggled.”  Although soft spoken, Helene was highly respected by her students, and had a novel way of keeping order in her classroom.  Mary Ellen described it thus:  “It was amusing to me how she controlled her class if she were called out:  she would ask the trouble-maker of the class to be in charge while she was gone! And it worked!”

The AACS Class of 1964 recognized her by dedicating their yearbook, The Alcen to her with this poem:

“To dedicate; to consecrate; to give.
Once there was someone who gave us so much –
We’d like to give her just one perfect thing.
The lady whom we want to thank today
Gave us knowledge and gave us herself;--
She read to us; we wrote, we saw, we learned,
And knew the fragile strength called poetry.
In history, she gave us perspective,”
Showed us time need not be a barrier –
And we had Greece, Rome, and the Renaissance;
And through her eyes we saw and felt a past
That lived and beat and trembled in our hands.
We had the joy and splendor of a play.
Here, too, she gave us selflessly her time,
Enthusiasm, talents and patience.
And we had fun, and made a story live.
Things given freely thus should not be classed,
But courage is perhaps her finest gift.
For never, never did she hesitate
To cut through all the texts and all the lies
And give us what was true and beautiful.
We dedicate the book that we have made
To Mrs. Phelan, who was not afraid.

Helene was born in Bryn Mawr, PA, and after graduating from high school in Ardmore, PA, attended Temple University and received her BA degree from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Through the ensuing years, she continued graduate work at Bryn Mawr College, and Alfred University.  Her early work experience was with the YMCA in Cincinnati, OH and Rochester.  In 1942, she married her artist/husband, Linn, a native of Rochester, NY, who had successfully developed and managed a village pottery industry experiment at Rowantrees Kiln, Bluehill, Maine. Linn’s son, Andy, sheds some light on the couple’s early history in an extensive monograph of his father, noting that during that time, he had also established Linnwood Pottery in Saco, Maine and become active in the Maine Craft Guild. “Unfortunately, the pottery only lasted a couple of years before it was put out of business by WWII when the Ration Board ordered him to convert his oiled fire kiln to coal (which was impossible). . . A few months later, he was invited to become the founding potter at the School for American Craftsmen in 1944 that was organized at Dartmouth College.  In 1946, SAC subsequently moved (albeit briefly) to Alfred which is how he, my mother and I got to Almond.  With the birth of Betsy and Sean, my parents felt rooted in the community and so when SAC moved on to Rochester, my parents decided to stay in Almond and Dad took the (art) position at AACS.”

They developed solid personal relationships within the larger Alfred-Almond communities, and along with his teaching duties, Linn continued to create works of art in the studio behind their home on S Main Street, Almond.  Especially treasured were his unique, personalized wedding and baby plates and cups, which were in great demand, causing a constant back-order situation for the beloved potter.

In 1963, when the movement to establish a responsible organization to receive and preserve important local historical materials was in its infant stages, Linn’s name was the first listed on the organizational committee appointed by temporary chairman John Reynolds. This was the beginning of nearly three decades of Linn’s service to the community through the Almond Historical Society, of which he eventually became president and then curator. 

Glenn Leathersich, AHS charter member and former president, remembers those early days:  “Helene told me that she was so glad when Linn got interested in the Historical Society, because he did not have very many other interests beside his work.  At first, she stayed kind of in the background, and she was so glad he had found something that he liked to do! He succeeded me as president after the Hagadorn House was given to the Society when Ken died,” he remembered.

Helene was, indeed, in the background of the grassroots movement.  She was a stalwart supporter of the Twentieth Century Club Library, which initially set forth the proposal to organize a historical preservation group, offering the use of one of its rooms where historical items could be displayed until a permanent “home” could be established.  Her extensive personal book collection and love of book, made her an invaluable asset to the local library for many years.  Anyone who lived in the Village of Almond the past fifty years undoubtedly remembers seeing her walking back and forth to the library, in all kinds of weather, always wearing a skirt, her arms full of books.  Someone called her  “the book lady” – which aptly describes a woman in love with books ---reading them, studying  them, and creating them – seven personally written ones, in fact!

The idea for her first book, “If Our Earthly House Dissolve,”  was “born” at the Hagadorn House.  Glenn Leathersich, former president and one of the founders of AHS, remembers:   “The Hagadorn family diaries were on the bookshelf in the fireplace room, and I had taken them home and had read them through.  I talked about them to others, and Helene began to read them and condense them for her book. She did a great job of making a story of it.”

The 400+-page volume was published in 1973, and relates the story of the Wetherby-Hagadorn family, beginning in 1815, with the family saga continuing through 1917.  An extensive 32-page glossary of persons and places referred to in the book is found in the back.  This invaluable section identifies individuals and families and explains their connection, place of residence, and significance in the community.  Historical events and characters of the time, as well as local places of interest and businesses are also described.

Over the course of the next seventeen years, she wrote six more books, including “And A White Vest for Sam’l”, “Allegany’s Uncommon Folk,” “The Man Who Owned The Pistols,”  “Tramping Out the Vintage,” “And Why Not Every Man?”, and “Who Only Stand and Wait.”  All of these books are out of print and unavailable, with the exception of an occasional surprise when one pops up on e-Bay or commands a very high price on used book websites.

Her son, Sean, who is the couple’s only child remaining in Almond, agrees that Helene devoted unbelievable amounts of time to the Historical Society and the many projects related to the preservation of local history.  He remembers her as “persistent, passionate about history, consumed by it, cataloging it, putting it in order.  My parents always felt it was better to be too busy than to be sitting around doing nothing.  Both of them had endless projects in the works.”   How did she do it all?  How did she find the time?  “She set a routine. . . built it into her schedule . . She allocated certain hours . . . and she stuck to that.  Every week she spent that amount of time on that project.  She was sorry she didn’t start writing books sooner,” he replied.

The months and years of research for her books have given us invaluable information on a century of Almond’s earliest history, was undoubtedly the stimulus for Helene’s endless quest to match up family information, which resulted in her setting up the comprehensive family files now available at the Hagadorn House.

This mission of sorting out and preserving Almond’s history became a passion of  hers, requiring vast amounts of time reading old documents and diaries.  Once again, Mary Ellen expresses her appreciation for Helene’s dedication to that project:  “It amazes me – I find it very difficult to read the handwriting of those old diaries that she used to write the books.”

Not only did she read, digest, and record unbelievable amounts of historical facts and information, she also spent countless hours interviewing Almond’s longtime residents, “picking their brains” for folklore and stories.  One woman who was invaluable to her work was the late Elizabeth (“Lizzie”) Greene, grandmother of Dick and Bob Baker, and  a neighbor of Helene’s.  Much information found in the Hagadorn House archives is attributed to “Lizzie”, who lived to be 102??.    One can only imagine the fun the two of them must have had together,  Helene listening to “Lizzie’s” entertaining accounts, writing feverishly to keep up.  These sessions apparently fascinated and motivated Helene, and as a token of her appreciation, Helene dedicated her first book with these words:  “For Lizzie Greene . . .who opened the door.”

The Phelans’ interest and commitment never wavered, and for the next several decades, they poured their lives into the preservation of local history and artifacts.   One of their objectives was to document the provenance of every item donated to the society – writing down where it came from, who gave it, what it was used for, its connection to local history, its family connection, and any other pertinent information.  A vast number of objects found around the Hagadorn House are “tagged” with handwritten notes by Helene.

Mary Ellen Westlake, who is in charge of the costume collection, including quilts and textiles, prizes the “file box” Helene set up to identify items in the collection.  “She wrote up file cards for each item, documenting what it is, who donated it, what fabric it is made of, the colors, who wore it and for what occasion . . . Each file card has a number, and she has sewn little fabric tags with corresponding numbers into each garment, so you can connect it with the file card.  Without that documentation, the house would be just full of ‘stuff’,” she explained.

Then there are the vary large “notebooks” – six of them – with myriad pages filled with handwritten descriptions and explanations, as well as locations, of every item found in the House or given to the Society.    Doris Montgomery, archivist, along with Sandra Perry Hackett and Teresa Stuart Johnson are in the process of transferring this information to the computer, and it is an immense task!  “It was like a full-time job for Helene,” Doris Montgomery stated.  “She went through the records and organized them.  Most historical societies don’t have the organization we do here and it’s because of Helene.  We’ve never replaced her,” she said.

Following Linn’s death in 1992, the AHS recognized the couple’s tremendous contributions by the planting of two pin oak trees in the front yard, and by naming the Linn L. Phelan Gallery in his honor.  In her remarks, the late Marilyn Lockwood said:  “Helene and Linn Phelan gave innumerable hours of service in building and maintaining the work of the Society, its museum and archives.  Whenever strangers came to Almond wanting information on its history, our townspeople directed them to the Phelan home for help.  You might say Helene and Linn were considered ‘Mr. and Mrs. Historical Society’ by the whole community.  Helene established our genealogy archives and has given countless hours to its growth.  She has authored several of the monographs published by the Society. . . Both of them knew more history of our area than many of us old settlers. . .”

“She was very strong on the genealogy part, setting up the family files. People would come constantly and use those files for genealogy information,” Glenn said.  Located in several five-drawer files in the upstairs archives room at the Hagadorn House, they are packed with hundreds of individual family folders, from early settlers up to current residents.  Doris, current archivist, explained that Helene spent unfathomable amounts of time on these files, painstakingly labeling them with the family surname and listing individual family members on the front.  Inside the family files are priceless pieces of the historical puzzle: newspaper clippings of births, weddings, deaths,  accidents, human interest stories as well as personal letters, photos, and family and business mementos.

But the “glue” that holds the family files together is what we fondly call “Helene’s tracks . .”  These are the myriad notes, written in her characteristic and readily recognizable handwriting, which provide genealogy and family connections that would have been long lost had it not been for her endless research and meticulous recording.  There are also transcriptions  from conversations on various topics  with longtime residents, now gone, that provide valuable historical information.  Clippings and documents are dated and the sources are noted, witness to her thinking of future generations’ need to establish times, dates and veracity of events.  To anyone doing family research or writing articles for the newsletter, these files and personal notes are invaluable.

The degree of esteem and admiration felt for Helene Phelan was expressed by one of her former students, who eventually went on to become Allegany County Historian. Craig A. Braack expresses the feelings of many of us when he wrote:  “As for Helene, even though I left the hallowed halls of AACS in ’67, I couldn’t call her by her first name until about 1990.  Even then the first name basis ‘stuck in my throat.’  The respect I had and always will have for her made it real hard to place her on a level with others.  In all respects she stood ‘head and shoulders’ above others.  With the passing of great people, we all are lessened to some degree that can never be replaced.  Mrs. Phelan was such a person.”

Helene spent the last few months of her life with her, Betsy Myers, and family in Hawaii.  Betsy recently wrote to their neighbor, Marie Rigby,  telling of Helene’s enjoyment of the island’s beauty, especially the ocean:  “Her ashes have been returned to Upstate New York and will be placed in Fairview Cemetery next to my dad’s.  We used to take her there quite often to plant flowers and bushes and just look across Karr Valley . . .”

That seems an appropriate final resting place for a remarkable lady whose tireless dedication and commitment to the mission of AHS:  “to discover, collect and preserve historical materials that will explain or illustrate the settlement of the community, its growth and progress during all the years of its existence . .” will grow even more valuable for generations to come.


The above excerpt is from the archives of the Almond Historical Society - 7 Main Street - Almond, NY;  They are reprinted here by permission of the Society Editor.

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