Janelle J. Christensen: Ode to Madelyn Helling | TheUnion.com

Janelle J. Christensen: Ode to Madelyn Helling

Though her name adorns the Nevada County Community Library, Madelyn Helling was a private person.

For example, though she played a formative role in my intellectual development, she would never tell me how old she was. As a child trying to organize my world into gender and age groups, I asked her, and she would squint at me through her vogue, dark-rimmed glasses and say, “A lady never tells. And it is not polite to ask.”

Being either a very socially awkward child or an obnoxiously persistent one (not mutually exclusive, I suppose), I asked Madelyn her age several times over my life. She never told. I didn’t learn her age until I saw her death notice printed March 16 in the The Union. Even in death, Madelyn is unlocking mysteries for me.

Well, I don’t care if you know how old I am: I am 41 and I grew up in Madelyn Helling’s Nevada County. This was a time my own children refer to as the “olden days” (much to my chagrin).

Back when phones were stuck to the wall and not capable of downloading books, my mom would drive me down to the whitewashed library in downtown Nevada City for the reading hour. For a child who lived in the trees and wasn’t in (expensive) child care, reading hour was a chance to not only hear magical stories, but to socialize with other children. It was a chance to learn not only the definition of mystery, but to experience one.

The librarian who often read these stories and who (I later learned) helped organize events like reading hour was Ms. Helling.

Madelyn turned scholarship into meaningful things for the community, not only through reading hour, but through the activities that have culminated in the Nevada County Railroad Museum.

I was lucky to meet Madelyn outside of the library (hence the repeated rude questions about her age) because she worked with my father, John Christensen, and many others (Gene Jones, Al ) on the historical transportation projects around town. I got to learn how scholarship was not just left in books, but could be brought to life, that books didn’t just live on shelves but could be used to inform action.

I left Madelyn Helling’s Nevada County for college. I left California for graduate school. But I took a hunger for knowledge and, I now realize, a drive for application of that knowledge.

When I returned home, I was lucky to meet Madelyn many times. She was always sharp, both in mind and dress, every time met with her. I could discuss projects and activism. (Perhaps I should have asked her age under the guise of anthropological scholarship. She probably still wouldn’t have told me).

We kept tabs on each other in the old-fashioned way, mostly through my dad (to the point: without social media because, as a private person, she didn’t have any of that mess).

I was shocked to find she had entered a long-term care facility last year. She, like many, became isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic. I was thankful when I learned my father was able to visit her recently.

I was devastated when I learned she had passed on. I was fortunate to be home visiting my parents for the first since the pandemic lockdown. Being with my parents gave us a chance to reflect on how such a private person, a person without children of her own, contributed so much to (at least) two generations of Nevada County citizens.

I miss her even if I didn’t know her well enough to know her age. But I have learned that people are never really gone as long as we carry their memories and their lessons.

Janelle J. Christensen is the president of the Democratic Environmental Caucus of Florida.

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