Eighteen-year-old Roberta started a long journey across a college lounge to say hello to a nineteen-year-old stranger. She began a friendly, charming and witty conversation. That delightful conversation lasted fifty years until a coyote came to our Arizona window and trotted off with her spirit.
Roberta’s mother descended from 17th Century settlers and pioneers who were in the Oklahoma land rush. Her father’s ancestors were Revolutionary War heroes. Her father was left alone in El Paso at the age of eleven by his own drifter father. His salvation was education and hard work, and the five Helmer children learned that lesson. Among her forebears were a family that loaned Abraham Lincoln books from their small library. Roberta loved her family, its history, and growing up on the farm in Ohio.
A man named Reverend Gale appeared to help guide her education. She never knew how he got involved. She attended a small school near Dayton founded by Fritz Marti, a Swiss educator who was passionate about teaching and wrote extensively on the subject. From there to the Ferry Hall Girls School in Lake Forest, Illinois where she was a lone scholarship girl among the heiresses of Chicago fortunes. Roberta enjoyed the wonderful teachers and curriculum there. Her schoolmates would line up in the hall outside her room for tutoring until lights out and the monitor sent them away. Roberta learned from living in close quarters with these girls to never seek material gain.
In college, she switched from French Literature to Chinese Literature. She was mentored for four years by Dr. Derk Bodde, a Dutchman who was the world’s foremost China scholar. He arranged grad school for Roberta at Harvard; she forsook that to return to school in Ohio to be near her family.
Roberta inspired her husband to appreciate the joy of education, and they graduated on the same day.
She put academics on hold to lead tours to China and work on book offers. Her first effort was a chapter on Chinese art in “The Encyclopedia of China Today.” The London Sunday Times said, “…the chapter on art is lovingly and beautifully written.” About that Roberta said, “It’s a small thing.”
After our son was born she was determined to work from home. She would write a few paragraphs every morning and show them to me at night. The first three times I could tell it was written by her. The fourth time I asked her, “Who wrote this?” She smiled and said, “I found my voice.” She submitted it to Dell Publishing and Maggie Lichota called her immediately to offer a three-book contract. Boy, was Roberta smiling! She loved everything about writing and she loved the great people she met, like Debbie Macomber. Debbie inspired her to do more knitting and Roberta found another great group of friends.
Her greatest love was our son Christian, and her last days were spent advising Christian and his new bride Mary on their life plans.
Thank you Roberta for the countless years.