Helen Besley Overington

December 18, 2010|By JANET HEIM |
  • Helen Overington is shown on the diving board of the pool at Antietam Recreation in Hagerstown in this 1986 photo with all of her grandchildren at the time.
Submitted photo

Editor's note: Each Sunday, The Herald-Mail runs "A Life Remembered." Each story in this continuing series takes a look back — through the eyes of family, friends, co-workers and others — at a member of the community who died recently. Today's "A Life Remembered" is about Helen Besley Overington, who died Dec. 4 at the age of 103. Her obituary was published in the Dec. 7 edition of The Herald-Mail.

Helen Besley Overington was a woman ahead of her time. Her children remember her passion for education, travel, community service and an active, healthy lifestyle —  elements they believe contributed to her long, fulfilling life.

Add to that a positive attitude and zest for life and the result was a woman well respected by her family and community.

Helen was born in 1907 in Washington, D.C., her mother's hometown. She was the third of four children and her early years were spent in Baltimore.

Helen's father, Fred Besley, was Maryland's first state forester, which helped Helen develop a love for nature. Her 100th birthday coincided with the centennial celebration of Maryland state parks and forests and she was honored at the final event of the celebration.

Champ Zumbrun, recently retired forest manager for Green Ridge State Forest, said he met Helen when she was 93. He interviewed her about her father's role as the first Maryland state forester, information that he included in a book he wrote about Green Ridge.

"She was an eyewitness to the founding of forest conservation in Maryland," Champ said. "Her father was the founding father."

Helen would accompany her father when he measured champion trees, a program he started in Maryland that has become a national program, Champ said. Helen's son, West Virginia Del. John Overington, started a similar program in that state.

"She was a pioneer in her own right ... Outdoor recreation was still a new thing then (in the 1940s)," Champ said.

He said Helen enjoyed hiking, camping and skiing long before they were in vogue and that she skied down the first slope south of the Mason-Dixon Line when it opened in New Germany State Park in Maryland in 1941.

Helen graduated from Western High School in Baltimore in 1924, and worked her way through Goucher College, graduating in 1928. She then embarked on a 12-year career teaching biology and general science in New York and Maryland.

Helen earned a master's degree in cytology and genetics from Cornell University in 1930. While at Cornell, she worked under Barbara McClintock, who would go on to earn a Nobel Prize for genetics in 1984 for work done during the time Helen assisted.

Summers usually were spent traveling or doing continuing education. Helen's early travels included bicycling through Norway, Sweden and Germany and a year later, New England, just a sampling of her extensive travels throughout the U.S. and abroad.

"She believed travel was a way to learn and grow," said daughter Peggy Weller of Waynesboro, Pa. "She cared about other cultures, people and religions."

Helen was 35 when she married Robert Overington, a noted ornithologist who was 15 years her senior, and whom she met at the Maryland Mountain Club.

Robert owned a ranch in California and told Helen he wanted to take her to what he considered the prettiest place in the world. She asked if that was a marriage proposal.

Their New Year's Day wedding was held in Baltimore, followed by a honeymoon in New Orleans.

After their marriage, they moved to the ranch, a cross-country road trip in their 1941 Plymouth.

The Overingtons' five children were born in Lakeport, Calif., in just under six years. Family life focused on the outdoors.

"She felt the best way to positively influence others was to teach ... Once the children arrived, we became the recipients of her desire to nurture, teach and love," Peggy said.

The family moved to Waynesboro in 1957 because Helen and Robert thought the schools were better on the East Coast. Robert was the disciplinarian, ensuring that his children learned a strong work ethic and the value of a dollar, while Helen was the nurturer.

The children were required to do two hours of outdoor chores every Saturday and Helen worked alongside them. While the children picked cherries for 30 cents a bucket, Helen quizzed them on vocabulary words.

"She saw every opportunity as an educational experience," Peggy said.

Robert died in 1970.

As her children grew older, Helen became an active member of the Waynesboro community. She taught Sunday school at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, then attended Trinity United Church of Christ for many years before becoming a member 11 years ago.

The Rev. Clayton Moyer, a former pastor of Trinity Church, said he had known Helen for about 40 years. He recalls how Helen attended a seminar series he taught at the church, despite her impaired vision and hearing.

Helen attended faithfully, even though she had to have other participants read the material to her, he said.

"One of the things I found most interesting about Helen was her never-ending desire to learn and grow ... I always found that to be one of her many sterling qualities," Clayton said.

He said even though Helen had five children of her own, she was concerned about children in the community. That concern led to her, along with Clayton's wife and several other women, to found the Waynesboro Day Care Center in 1972.

Helen recognized that not all parents had the luxury of being at home with their children during the day.

Meals on Wheels, the Total Life Center at Waynesboro Hospital, the crisis hotline, GED program, Waynesboro College Club and Waynesboro Senior Center were some of the organizations that benefited from Helen's energy and dedication.

All five of Helen's children were educators at some point and all but one married teachers. The family has grown to include 12 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

Youngest daughter Mary Rotz said Helen dedicated her life to her children. When Mary had five children of her own, it was her mother who was there for her.

"She was definitely a giver. She was proud of us," said Mary, who lives in Hagerstown.

John said when he had to read "David Copperfield" for a school assignment in his early teens, Helen helped him by taking turns with him reading the book aloud.

"It was looking out for us and caring for us that made her so special," John said of his mother.  

Mary said her mother's gift to her was athleticism. It was Helen who encouraged Mary and her husband, Bob, when they opened Antietam Recreation 35 years ago.

"She was my biggest cheerleader," Mary said. "She loved me no matter what."

"We all depended on her," Peggy said. "She gave us confidence and empowered us all to achieve."

Mary said Helen lived a simple life and didn't worry about things. Instead, she tried to make the most of every situation and rarely complained.

"She was such a good example to the kids, showing us how to grow old gracefully," Mary said. "We had a real joy looking after her."

Helen's thirst for knowledge didn't diminish with age. Despite her failing eyesight, she listened to books on tape and kept informed through television and radio news, often listening to National Public Radio as her only son and middle child, John, shuttled her between his sisters' homes in the last several years of her life.

After giving up her Waynesboro home of 20 years, next door to Peggy and her husband, Helen split time among her four daughters in Salem, Va., Annapolis, Hagerstown and Waynesboro. John was responsible for getting Helen from place to place.

"We had the attitude that she took care of us when we were young," John said. "It was an honor to take care of her."

John has been a member of the West Virginia House of Delegates for 26 years. In 2007, Helen got to see her son preside over a legislative session in Charleston, W.Va., since he was the most senior member of the House of Delegates, he said.

Peggy said Helen never missed voting and voted in the November election by absentee ballot. She laughed as she considered that many times, Peggy's and Helen's votes canceled each other out.

"I was glad she voted independent of any of our views ... She took a balanced approach of getting all sides. We would have some lively discussions," John said.

As a final act befitting her "vigorous curiosity" and love of science, Helen donated her body to the Maryland State Anatomy Board.

"One way I look at it, you can't choose your parents, but we certainly lucked out," John said. "We won the lottery with Mom."

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