Paul Matson: One person who made a big difference
Madelyn Helling, now departed, dedicated most of her life to community service. We had the good fortune of her leadership beginning in 1974, when she became the Nevada County librarian, a post she held for 17 years.
She set up shop in the basement of the Nevada City Library, located on North Pine Street. She had the space excavated to create her office. It was later renamed the Doris Foley Historical Library upon completion of the Madelyn Helling Library at the Rood Center.
Born and raised in Bismarck, North Dakota, she began her professional career in San Francisco. Arriving in Nevada County from San Francisco, she could envision what was ahead for us. Our county’s population was a third of what it is today, and that was about to change. Cultural enhancements such as Music in the Mountains, KVMR radio, the American Victorian Museum, CATS, Foothill Theatre Company, the Nevada Theatre and more were signs of changing times. People were moving to Nevada County and she wanted to have a library adequate to the increased needs of that population, and the tasks at hand.
The Nevada County Board of Supervisors basically said, If you can find the money, then OK, build it. Gene Albaugh, Nevada County CEO, and Dennis Casella, our purchasing agent, helped a lot. Through the Library Construction Act, county matching grants and various foundations, she pulled together the money. This resulted in a state-of-the-art library meeting the needs of a much larger population. It bears her name.
In her spare time, she supported two successful sales tax measures to fund our county’s fine library system. While working as our county librarian, she was instrumental in creating and building the Truckee Library.
Says then-City Manager Beryl Robinson of her library work, “They hired the best person available. She blossomed in that job. She brought the library alive, dedicated to developing a library system available to and enjoyed by everyone. She started a book mobile to increase visibility. When Madelyn called, you listened.”
Madelyn had a passion for history, among many other things. One was the Narrow Gauge Railroad, which once ran between Nevada City, Grass Valley and Colfax. The tracks were removed in 1942 for scrap to support the war effort.
Building a Railroad Museum was an even longer shot than the very long shot of building a library. In 1983, she and Nevada County Historical Society Director Cliff Sommarstrom established the Friends of the Narrow Gauge, which morphed into the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad & Transportation Museum. There she served as secretary from 1991 to 2005 and director from 2006 to 2017. One of her favorite self-appointed jobs was to wait for the rail bus passengers to return from their ride. She greeted them with a friendly smile and a donation jar on her lap.
One of her many colleagues from the start of this project was John Christensen, a Railroad Museum devotee from the get go. “We established a firm working relationship,” he said. “We trusted each other and our decision making. That’s how you get things done.”
Robinson put his full weight behind this museum project with land acquisition, easement acquisition and finding transportation funds to finish the job.
The museum opened in 2002 and today receives thousands of visitors each year. There will be an honoring of Madelyn at the christening of the new Kiosk on Railroad Avenue on Saturday, May 22.
Her work for our community did not go unnoticed. She has received awards from the Nevada County Historical Society, city of Nevada City, Nevada County Board of Realtors, League of Women Voters, American Association of University Women, Marching Presidents, and the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce, to name a few. She was grand marshal of the Independence Day and Chinese New Year’s parades. In her lifetime the county honored her by naming a street and a library after her.
She worked and volunteered for the University Women, League of Women Voters, Nevada County Historical Society, the Senior Center, Causerie Club, Nevada County Arts Council, city of Nevada City Citizens Committee, KVMR, Nevada City Chamber of Commerce, Nevada City Bicentennial Committee, Literature Alive, the Railroad Museum and Friends of the Library. In some cases, she was president, secretary, or director, and in others a volunteer.
Her first jobs were with United Airlines and Air France. There she acquired a passion for travel. As per her longtime friend Desmond Gallagher, “She loved to travel. Whenever she had the time and money, she would go somewhere, internationally when younger, and nationally when a bit older. In this way she gained a broad perspective on how people live in many different ways in different places.”
It is my privilege to have met her in the mid-1970s. Her diligence, integrity and work ethic made it impossible for me and others to say no to her. She selflessly dedicated her life to doing the right things for our fine community. Madelyn Helling worked successfully to leave behind some wonderful, permanent footprints from which we all benefit today. Thank you, Madelyn.
As her friend Desmond Gallagher says, her life may be best summarized by Winston Churchill’s highly appropriate statement: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
Paul Matson, who lives in Nevada City, is a former Nevada City Council member and current member of The Union Editorial Board. Write to him at EditBoard@TheUnion.com.
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