Helen Louise Catherine Wiley Whalen was born Feb. 18, 1928 in Chicago to Irwin and Frances Wiley, joining her sister Mary Claire in an adventurous childhood on Chicago’s South Side. Arriving on the cusp of the Great Depression, she was fortunate enough to have two working parents, but was still greatly influenced by an era of saving, reusing, sewing, and knitting, soon followed by the rationing of World War II. Her three surviving grandparents, in another sign of the times, eventually moved into the small Wiley home, where they proved to be models of parsimony and making do.
Blessed with a bright inquisitive mind, Helen enjoyed schoolwork and embraced music and other arts, even performing Irish dances on WCFL Radio with Mary Claire. Helen, shaped by her family’s faith, was educated in Catholic schools from first grade through graduate school. Earning a scholarship to Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin, she finished an associate’s degree in 1947 and matriculated at Chicago’s Loyola University, laying the groundwork for a total change of scenery in her life’s journey. Revealing an academic seriousness, Helen once said she could have studied art at Chicago’s Art Institute but chose philosophy and later child psychology at Jesuit Loyola because it seemed more useful and less selfish at the time. She got her bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1949 and was in graduate school studying when she began dating John Whalen of Rock Springs, Wyoming in 1950.
With her marriage to John in 1951, Helen added a lot to her plate, having Christian, Teresa, and Damian in ’52, ’54, and ’56, respectively, while continuing her graduate program and taking music courses at Rosary College and The American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. John, whose wanderlust had already brought him to Chicago, was about to give Helen additional opportunities to demonstrate she was more than a beauty with an academic bent—and also a lot tougher than she looked. In 1957 the two of them, recently certified at Chicago Teachers College, ventured over 3,000 miles to become teachers for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Kotzebue, an Eskimo village above the Arctic Circle in the territory of Alaska. With snow drifting in winter above the eaves of their non-insulated clapboard house, they melted ice on their stove for water, bathed themselves and their children in a galvanized washtub, and were grateful to have an indoor “outhouse.” Helen’s crowded one-bathroom childhood home on 50th Street suddenly seemed palatial. Unaware when she arrived in Kotzebue that she was pregnant, Helen, enduring the battles of work, home and winter in alien surroundings, was flown by a bush pilot in wintry March to Anchorage for the birth of her fourth child, Lisa, in April, 1958.
In 1959 Helen was finally able to focus on managing her household when John’s teaching career took the family to Montana. They spent one year in Stevensville and moved the next year to Red Lodge, where by 1963 the family had lived in four places, including the remote ranch they were on when the last of the five children, Mercy, was born in 1962. In 1963 John, seeing the wisdom of living in a college town so his children could have a better opportunity for higher education, took a job in Missoula. Thinking they were finally settled down in the home they purchased on Woodford Street, Helen must have been mystified to find John in 1966 contemplating teaching in Micronesia. His vagabond nature found him accepting a position in Bellevue, Washington in 1967, then being released from that contract so he could take advantage of a one-year fellowship at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. Helen enjoyed that year, having her husband at home as a student and her parents 140 miles north, but with the fellowship program soon ending, she finally had her say and the couple returned to Missoula and to the only home they would ever own.
Wherever they lived, Helen’s creativity informed practically all aspects of her home and broadly influenced the interests and outlets of her children. She sewed, knitted, and crocheted for her family, passing the skills on to her three daughters. She took oil and pastels classes, enrolled her children in art classes, and decorated the home with artwork she loved and antiques she both collected and learned how to refinish. Her creativity left her unafraid to teach herself new things. Cooking became an art and adventure for her—she was serving tacos years before Missoula’s first taco stand even opened. From the hundreds of cookbooks and magazines she collected over the years, she attempted a huge repertoire—from stuffing wild ducks per Julia Childs to stuffing her own garden’s zucchini with ground beef, a dish timed perfectly to stretch John’s June paycheck until his next one in September. In the 1970’s and ’80’s Helen studied calligraphy, becoming accomplished and inspiring Teresa, who later became even better. During that period she also managed to repurpose wool coats and shirts she had saved, cutting them into strips and learning how to braid rugs. In the 1990’s, still unafraid to try new things, she not only took up watercolor, but later in the decade, at age 70, began studying French, in part to broaden her mind with a new language, but also to further connect herself to a lifelong dream to see Paris. These efforts served her well in March, 2001 as she fulfilled two dreams of hers in one overseas trip: first, finally seeing Paris, and then visiting Kilkee, Ireland, the hometown of Nana, the maternal grandmother forever close to her heart. For decades Frances Wiley would ask her daughter when she would be moving back home, but, just as Nana had moved to a new country and settled down to have American children, Helen, showing strength, fortitude, and resourcefulness, had moved far from Chicago to rear Montanans and Westerners.
Her children like to remember Helen having fun — laughing with her children and their friends, playing cards with them, cooking for and entertaining her own friends, or traveling with John on one of the many train and car trips they enjoyed over three decades of retirement. John died at home in 2015 after 63 years of faithfully trusting his partner to manage their household. Helen followed him on April 10th, also dying in the home they first inhabited in 1963.
Helen was preceded in death by her parents, Irwin V. and M. Frances Wiley and by her sister Mary Claire Wiley Sullivan. She is survived by her five children: Christian (Aida Labto), Teresa Francis (David), Damian, Lisa Clark (James) and Mercy Clevenger (Hal), her eight grandchildren: Sean, Nicholas, Connor and Morgan Whalen; Claire and Molly Clevenger; Camden Francis, and Johanna Clark, and one great-grandchild, Isaac Whalen.
Her Funeral and reception will be Saturday, April 21 at 11 a.m. at St. Anthony’s Church. Donations honoring Helen can be made to The Poverello Center.