Grass Valley mourns passing of matriarch Helen Williams
September 25, 2012
For Helen Williams, even at the age of 92, retirement really was never an option.
"We never really wanted her to retire because she was so social," said Mary Christopher, Williams' daughter. "She hated three-day weekends; she'd say 'By Monday, I'm so bored and lonely. I want to see people.'
"She said working gave her three things: 'It gives me reason to get up in the morning, it gives me social contact with others, and it gives me reason to buy new clothes.'"
And for a substantial segment of the western Nevada County community, it gave a good reason over the past 64 years to stop by Williams Stationery.
“If you can’t do something nice for somebody, it’s a wasted day.”
— HELEN WILLIAMS
Helen Williams, often referred to as a matriarch of Grass Valley, died Tuesday morning.
One day later, her children, Dave and Mary, said their mother's impact on the community she loved was as obvious as the outpouring of sympathy and support they've seen from its members who have learned of her death.
"People are walking in and giving us hugs and kisses, cards and emails," Dave said.
"My little iPhone has been drowning in emails," Mary added.
The family has a long and rich history in the community. Though most who came from Cornwall, England, during the Gold Rush did so to work as gold miners, Helen's served as some of the community's early carpenters. A memorial plaque on the old brick firehouse in downtown Grass Valley bears the name of her father, William Randolph Vincent, who served as fire chief in 1915, Dave noted.
"Everyone knows her," Mary said. "They'd stop in just to say hi to Mom."
Rest assured, people do regularly stop by the 112 West Main Street shop for their stationery or office supply needs, Dave Williams will attest. But in addition to saying goodbye to his mother, he also lost his business partner of the past 32 years.
"She was quite a gal," he said. "She fixed my lunch every day."
"How many moms are cooking for their sons every day? When he's into his 60s?" Mary said with a laugh.
"And it was a hot lunch 50 percent of the time," Dave said with a smile. "Stews, soups … every weekend, she'd be cooking, which was one of her joys along with gardening. She'd go to SPD (Market) every Saturday at 4 p.m. when we'd get out of the store. She was still working six days a week."
"Well," Mary interrupted, "she was doing aqua aerobics in May or June of this year."
In fact, Helen Williams worked right up until July 24, when she became ill, bringing to a close a career that began more than seven decades earlier.
Born on the Fourth of July, "she always considered herself a Yankee Doodle girl," Mary said. In fact, she added, Helen believed Fourth of July parades were held in honor of her own birthday until she was about 11 years old, as her parents had told her. She once served as the "Goddess of Liberty" aboard a parade float and nearly 60 years later served as grand marshal of the parade in Grass Valley.
Helen had always called Grass Valley home, living only in two different houses her entire life, including the one on Clark Street where she and her husband had lived since 1946.
After she graduated from Grass Valley High, then St. Mary's Business College, Helen went to work with PG&E, which recruited her out of business school. She later married Elton "Champ" Williams, who had bought the stationery business with his brother, Floyd, in 1949 from the Tresize Brothers.
Her husband eventually bought out his brother, and Helen came on board at the business in 1955.
Inside a building that dates back to 1854, which the family now owns, they've sold stationery, newspapers, magazines and supplies to the neighboring downtown businesses. Even today, customers can buy a copy of The Union right out of a rack that very likely predates the 149-year-old newspaper, Dave said.
The business has shifted with the times with 60 to 70 percent of its revenue from commercial accounts. But its hometown storefront, its commitment to customer service and a certain social butterfly have served as the real secret to their success, he said.
"I've watched changes in the community, some good for business, some challenging," Helen was quoted as saying in the 2007 Notable Women of Nevada County calendar. "We've had to keep our store just the way it was with wood floors, supplies stacked along the walls and our door open to the public. We've done that for 57 years."
"She will be sorely missed in downtown," said Grass Valley Downtown Association Director Julia Jordan. "She will always be a part of our downtown family. The GVDA has suffered a great loss, and our thoughts are with Dave and the rest of the Williams family and staff."
In addition to serving as a savvy business partner, Helen had also at one time been quite a ballplayer. She's a member of the Nevada County Fast Pitch Softball Hall of Fame.
"She was a big Giants fan, too — a 'Gamer Babe' from Grass Valley," Dave said. "She threw like a boy. One of the last things I told her, actually, was that when we meet again, we're going to play catch."
Years after Elton died at the age of 75, the Williams Stationery store was where Helen met George Cossairt with whom she shared a relationship for eight years before his own death.
"He was a wonderful man," Mary said. "He treated her like a queen, and he thought he was the luckiest man in the world."
Helen's friends and customers also consider themselves fortunate to have known her, as the family has long known and seen again with her passing.
"If you can't do something nice for somebody," she once said for that calendar of notable of Nevada County women, "it's a wasted day."
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