In 1934, when Helen George arrived in Schenectady as the bride of a General Electric “test” electrical engineer, a significant amount of the social and cultural work that enhanced this burgeoning city was done by women volunteers. In the 1940s during the war, this work took on even greater importance. Helen’s volunteer career during those years is a tale of unremitting work. In the second half of the 20th century, like so many of us, she joined the work force as a paid employee to help support herself and her family.
Helen had graduated from Lake Erie College with a degree in sociology. She came to Schenectady as a transfer from the Youngstown, Ohio Junior League. In those days, members were asked to work two days a week for the Family Welfare Bureau, a forerunner of Family and Child Services. Helen was young and new to the city, but they provided training and these volunteers interviewed families in their homes, did case work, provided services. She served three terms as president of the Junior League and their Volunteer of Distinction Award was named for her. She also served as president of Family and Child Services Board when that was formed.
Unless you lived here during the 1930s and ’40s, you might never have heard of the Schenectady Community Concerts, a very popular subscription series. They brought top-ranked musical organizations, such as the Pittsburgh and Cleveland symphonies, to perform at the Plaza Theater. Helen served as registrar and president.
Picture life in Schenectady during the booming war years: GE and ALCO at top production, many men away serving their country. Helen increased her volunteer work at the new Volunteer Bureau, the Red Cross, the Rationing Board, Civilian War Services. It comes as no surprise that Helen was also named chairman of a huge, countywide “Block Plan,” a system of communicating critical information to every home.
How did she do it all? “Accepting responsible jobs is frightening, but builds confidence — from helping with a mailing to serving as president of a board,” she says.
To simply list the boards she served on hardly captures the time and energy she spent — the Chamber of Commerce, United Way, YWCA, Boys and Girls Club, Travelers Aid, Girl Scouts, Child Guidance, Hospice Foundation, Human Services Planning Council, Ellis Hospital Foundation, Niskayuna Community Foundation, Schenectady Community College Foundation. Schenectady Theater for Children, the Day Nursery, and terms as president of Proctors Theatre Board of Directors.
Helen also worked on many capital fund campaigns and benefits — museum galas, League of the Schenectady Symphony Fashion Shows, Junior League Follies and House Tours. She is a member of the Garden Club of Schenectady, Gardeners Workshop and the First Presbyterian Church, where she was a deacon.
After her divorce in 1950, Helen assumed a paid job and a pen name, “Gretchen Dorp,” writing the Social Notes column for what was formerly the women’s page of The Schenectady Gazette. Her daughter, Elizabeth, was a teenager and Helen was a single parent. Her newsy notes about the mostly happy personal and social activities of the community were due at 2 p.m., six days a week at the Gazette office.
Helen knew everyone and was eminently suited to the job. Her columns reflect a simpler, slower-paced time and are a litany of names familiar to any longtime Schenectady resident.
Following her retirement from the Gazette in 1977, Helen spent another 20 years working as a Realtor associate with Veronica Lynch.
Becoming a Patroon
In 1991 on her 80th birthday, Helen George had the honor of being named a Schenectady Patroon by then-Mayor Karen Johnson, who said, “I share with many others a sense of respect and appreciation for her efforts. She is a good friend, a tireless worker and a welcome Patroon.” Hers joined an illustrious list of names.
I asked Helen about the people and places she remembers over her long life. She knew many of Schenectady’s mayors, Union College presidents, and many of the old Schenectady families who occupied houses in the Stockade and the GE Plot as well as the humbler citizens. She speaks of the beauty of our old train station, the Van Curler Hotel, and the Plaza and State theaters. But she also remembers the “Men’s Porch” at the Mohawk Golf Club where “no woman dared set foot,” and the side entrance through which women guests were allowed to enter the Mohawk Club in the Stockade. There were no women members, no matter how great their contribution to the city.
Helen can be found almost any day having lunch or dinner in the Grille Room or playing bridge in the Courtyard Lounge at Glen Eddy in Niskayuna, where she lives. She still has a twinkle in her eye, a wicked wink, a merry laugh. I think of the memories in her head as a treasury of Schenectady’s past, lived by one remarkable woman.
Ruth Peterson lives in Niskayuna. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.
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