The Gray Zone: Centenarian Helen Yeager on Joy

By Kathryn White

“Well,” Helen Yeager said, “I think it was Thomas Merton who wrote, ‘You were not created for pleasure, you were created for joy.’”

From there, the centenarian reaches back to the earliest of her 101 years, recounting a stormy day in Evanston, Illinois, when her mother put everything on hold to read an entire book to a young Yeager and her older sister, Margaret.

Kathryn White

“She did take a brief break to get dinner for dad,” Yeager said.

Yeager remembers selecting reading material from her grandmother’s many glass-doored bookcases, sliding open one section after another until she found her next read. Her father gently nudged his daughters to use words thoughtfully, issuing reminders like, “There’s no such thing as ‘almost exactly.’”

Their mother carried a notebook on walks, where she recorded drawings and observations, or a line or two of poetry. She’d refer to the notebook—or a National Geographic from her collection—later while painting a watercolor scene of a farm or market or people gathered at a river. Her dad might’ve been tending to the house or dashing off to chase a squirrel from the corn in the garden.

Yeager’s parents, Mary and Stephen Clark, were Catholic and Episcopal, respectively. Yeager remarks on her mother’s ingenuity: Clark arranged weekly trips to receive Catholic teachings from a small group of nuns living near Lincoln Park in Chicago. Time in the Cenacle Sisters’ garden planted the seeds for a faith Yeager would cultivate over the course of her lifetime.

As a child Yeager enjoyed solo activities like reading, writing, and listening to music. Her skill with language propelled her in school. Literally. It was an era heavy on testing. And on test after test, Yeager “moved up.” She graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, at 20 years old, receiving high honors from the English Literature department for her thesis on Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.” It was a beautiful campus, Yeager reflects, where she remembers having her own desk in the Smith library.

Yeager shares that she was a quiet young woman, even socially timid, when compared to her outgoing sister. So quiet that when a family member learned she planned to go into teaching, they were amazed she’d go into something so “public.” For Yeager, though, the gifts of teaching were far more important than any drawbacks. And her quiet nature went on to be a key ingredient in the atmosphere she created as an English teacher.

Former Kent Denver colleague and math teacher Mary Adams (Elghandour) said, “Helen had a quiet strength about her. She extended warmth and welcome. A lot of us who were going through tough times during those years were drawn to her. She was a trusted friend, a good listener. She really reflected on what she heard and wasn’t judgmental. She was generous with her time, never rushed.”

Adams and her colleagues loved being guinea pigs for the baked goods Yeager’s daughter Pat would send their way as she began experimenting in the kitchen. They enjoyed following Pat’s progress in various Denver restaurants, and they celebrated with Yeager when Pat ultimately opened her own restaurant.

Yeager reversed the baking exchange in her retirement by preparing pumpkin bread for Pat’s first restaurant, Today’s Gourmet, and then again at Highland’s Garden Café. The treat became so popular with guests that the recipe earned a spot in one of the restaurant’s murals.

Helen Yeager releases a dove at a garden dedication. Photo courtesy of the Gardens at St. Elizabeth

Yeager taught at the Kent School for Girls (later Kent Denver) for 21 years. Lisa Mortell, Director of Communication for Kent Denver, shared that Yeager is the only person to have two end-of-year Kent Denver awards named in her honor: The Helen Yeager Cup to the graduating senior who made the most academic progress during their years at school, and the Helen Yeager Literary Award, to middle school students in each grade level who displayed outstanding writing ability.

To Mortell, “By all accounts, Mrs. Yeager was a truly legendary teacher.” Former student Jan Thomas used other words: transformative, welcoming, passionate. “There’s an old adage: you don’t remember what people say, but you remember how they made you feel. Mrs. Yeager saw me. I knew she saw me. She made me feel incredibly comfortable in class. She wrote notes of encouragement. She was aware that I had aptitude in English, and it was her encouragement and recognition that gave me confidence and ultimately helped me find my voice.”

Thomas went on to a career in communications, which continues now as a writer of contemporary fiction. Her first middle grade novel will come out next year and she’s begun work on a second.

“Teachers come into our lives, and the really really good ones transform us. They help form us. I will always remember Mrs. Yeager for that.”

Yeager says she encouraged her students to go beyond descriptions like “beautiful,” and draw instead from the full range of their senses. Recounting this brings Yeager back to moments when she walked into her grandmother’s house after her grandmother’s hair had just been hot-curled and fixed.

The distinctive scent connects one memory to another, “I enjoyed going to dinner there. She lived near The Drake Hotel,” Yeager says with a smile, “I’m not sure why that part stands out.”

Yeager’s teaching career was followed by pastimes not far from her first loves of nature and literature. She helped care for the glorious gardens at the former Highland’s Garden Café on West 32nd Avenue (where Sassafras American Eatery now operates), and enjoyed the company of birds who spent time in the trees where she lived near the restaurant. Birds frequented the feeders she kept stocked. It has been said that the birds sometimes followed Yeager from her garden on Perry Street to the garden at the restaurant when she walked over for lunch — and back again as she walked home.

The memory puts a smile on her face, and she nods. Today’s joys are not so different for Helen Yeager than those earlier ones. She enjoys picnics with family and friends. Books still give her comfort. A vibrantly colored string of Rosary bead sits within reach.

Her faith means everything to her today, “To know that Jesus is waiting for me, it keeps me going.”

She’s surrounded by a garden of paintings, plants, and a vase of fresh cut flowers. She points over her shoulder to the wall in her apartment that bears several of her mother’s paintings. There’s a favorite: a watercolor-in-progress depicting the exterior of a busy flower shop. The right side fades into penciled figures where color might someday complete the scene. It’s the unfinished nature Yeager loves.

“It’s as if my mother has just stepped away for a moment,” she said.

When nudged for her advice on topics ranging from being a good student to being a good neighbor, Yeager weaves poetic answers around words like wisdom, opportunity, joy and change. “Keep an open mind about the needs of others.”

As for aging, Yeager offers, “Approach situations with an expectation of joy.” Yeager smiles as she absorbs what she has just said. “Joy seems to be one of my favorite words.”

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