By Pete Zamplas- My mother Helen Zamplas taught for nearly 40 years, and was proudest about impacting hundreds of youths and tackling learning disabilities to advance every child’s reading proficiency and life skills.
Helen, 97, who departed this realm last Friday, lived to within two months of her 98th birthday.
She was a breast cancer survivor. Her husband George, who died eight years ago, lived to 99. His mother Jennie reached 107. My parents had productive, long lives. Their health descended rapidly in the end, but for each that phase thankfully did not linger.
Helen taught over a 40-year span, in 1942-82, in Metro Detroit. She taught fifth grade, and later was a reading specialist. She earned $800 in ’42, was paid monthly and not at all when off in the summer.
Her local legacy includes as a founding board member of the Michigan club and its historian, a board member (with George) of Belles ‘n Beaux square dance club, and as a teacher and donor for Henderson County Public Schools.
She volunteered as a reading tutor in Balfour Elementary in the Eighties, when Corum Smith was still principal there. She thought the world of Corum as a gentleman overseer, who trusted teachers and loved pupils. Two of Helen’s closest friends — John Miejski and Tony Taddeo — like her taught in Michigan for decades.
Maria’s Fund is what Helen started in 2013, with a generous gift to the Community Foundation of Henderson County. She named it after her mother, whose father was school superintendent for much of the Greek island of Crete in the late 1800s. The annual college scholarship is for a student from HendersonCounty with a 3.5 or better GPA. Preference goes to those who like Helen are of Greek descent.
Matthew Tuten, among recipients, aspires to teach history. “I will uphold your trust, by excelling in my academics,” Tuten pledged to Helen in a note thanking her “trust, generosity and support.” People can best honor Helen with donations to Maria’s Fund, and/or to the Henderson County Education Foundation.
My parents’ life lessons resonate with me, as the ones from your parents and other role models likely molded you — often more than realized.
George and Helen were so grounded, reliable, upwardly mobile, and patiently embodied “deferred gratification.” They led by example to save what one could for years and decades, making large purchases by cash and avoiding debt. Mom often quoted “Time makes money,” about safe long-term investments.
They were dedicated and proficient, both in professions and day-to-day managing of a household. We traveled often when I was young domestically then abroad. When in Henderson County, they learned ballroom and square dancing and to play bridge. They were Flat Rock Playhouse season ticket-goers. They found out about Hendersonville from Helen’s teacher friend, who had relatives here.
I have lived most of my life here, first arriving in 1983. I grew up in one basic ranch home, in the suburb of Livonia west of Detroit. George and Helen invested infinitely more into a house, once retired in Henderson County.
Yet they saved as George designed their second and final home. He decorated it with such creations as stained glass windows and lamp shades and wooden figurines. George, an auto engineer, was quite the handyman. He crafted his own tools, if lacking one for the task. He and Helen got me into landscaping and gardening.
We dined in 99 percent of the time, to economize and for a healthy diet. Dutifully, I cleaned off my plate instead of wasting any of it. This was easy as Helen was a gourmet-caliber cook. In recent decades, she rarely was satisfied dining at even the finest restaurants. They could not match her cuisine. One presumed her mother taught her to cook and sew. Instead, Angeline, the eldest of four daughters, was shown sewing. Mom observed and absorbed. She self-taught cooking, once out on her own and teaching.
Here is a pivotal lesson — even if you miss out learning a craft or skill when young, you can still learn and master it. I detected and unfroze some of her 2011 grand finale batch of baclava after seven years, and it still tasted great.
Helen was also advanced as a seamstress sewing colorful clothes from intricate patterns, on the cutting edge of fashion. In that way, she blended cultures of generations. She also made some of my early clothes. Her quilted bed covers are keepsakes.
Her mother, Maria, quilted and sewed items that kept the family going in The Great Depression when her husband Mike among others were bitten by temporary but prolonged Ford Motor layoffs. One of Maria’s works was showcased in a cultural heritage museum in Detroit. Maria died in early her fifties due to circulatory woes, and her husband at age 78 due to kidney failure. Thus Helen far outlived her parents, and told me she was flabbergasted she lasted to near 100.
In the Depression Helen’s family of six was evicted for missing rent, and suddenly had to hole out at its modest summer farm. There, heat was from a wood stove and trips to the outhouse frigid in Michigan winters. That property along the Huron River is part of 1,256-acre Lower Huron Metropark, in Brighton, Mich.
George’s engineering career was delayed a full decade. The Depression erupted in 1928 as he was early into his senior year of high school. He worked odd jobs, then went back to college. He worked in job shops. He started with Ford in 1955, at age 43. Within months he married Helen. They met two years earlier, at a Greek social group function down in Miami, Fla.
This was the only marriage for each. George once told me he waited to marry, until saving money for years and landing a long-term job with a pension. Only then did he take on role of provider. Theirs was a two-income partnership.
Each contributed on the World War II homefront. George helped refine design of a self-propelled rail car that mechanically dismantled tracks behind it, to foil Nazi supply transit. Helen and other teachers voluntarily distributed ration coupon books, and led students’ growth of “victory gardens.”
Growing up in the Depression charged The Greatest Generation to be frugal and save, lest there be another economic catastrophe. If I had a dollar for every “We were so poor, we didn’t even have a pot to piss in” story from Mom, then I’d have been a billionaire by age 12. Yet even in dire times, Helen’s family had Jack the orange cat. They toilet-trained Jack, to squat over the commode.
Helen realized that more than ever, in the Depression era it took solid grades and a grasp of academics and will to achieve and succeed. She earned all-As throughout, including three college degrees. She was punctual to class, attentive, and curious about subjects. She routinely did homework right after school, as I also would do.
Helen won her elementary school’s spelling contest every year, getting one Webster’s dictionary after another as the prize. She proudly displayed in her assisted living room a large trophy, for winning the local Blue Ridge Literacy Council’s bee in 1999.
Her final writings were still in very neat handwriting, deploying crisp English.
Helen was born three years after the end of World War I, and early into The Roaring Twenties. Warren G. Harding was president. In her birth year of 1921, the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy act dedicated a million dollars per year to lower infant mortality. It aided state-run programs helping women and children — especially rural prenatal and newborn care.
The year was landmark on a current hot issue — immigration. The Emergency Quota Act passed when Helen was a month young. It was the nation’s first major limitation on immigration, at a time when WWI soldiers had trouble finding work and many Southern and Eastern Europeans fled their war-ravaged countries. The law’s annual cap per country equaled three percent of the number from that ethnic group already living in the U.S, as of the 1910 census. Exclusions were for professionals and — ironically — Latinos.
Helen burst onto the scene in the opening week of Babe Ruth’s 59-homer season of 1921, which is when that fabled franchise won the first of its 40 pennants. That was the second year of the NFL, and of radio broadcasting. The first news show ever was on Detroit’s WWJ (then 8MK), in 1920. Helen was two when Red Grange became a college football sensation.
Teaching is Helen’s widest-known legacy, and what meant most to her. In her final weeks as she weakened, her messages to me were typically in this order: “Oh, thanks for coming by…I’m not doing well…They take good care of me (at Carolina Village)…I’ve lived a long life…I helped many children (in teaching)…Thanks for visiting!” Those last words and her smile and chuckle were her ways of expressing love.
Helen taught in ‘42-’82 minus two years off tending to me when I was an infant, then a couple more part-time years before going back full-time. By age eight, I graduated to latch-key home-alone status for after school. She proudly noted in nearly 40 years, she missed no days of school. I do not recall her seeming sick. Parents can seem super-human.
Her main distinction is she was in the forefront of dealing with learning disabilities, which got certified to do in circa 1970. This was as she earned a specialist’s degree in education. She was a remedial reading specialist. She earlier earned her education undergrad degree, then a master’s from the University of Michigan.
Curiously, in her undergrad days she spent special summer semesters at UCLA and then Columbia in New York City where she recalled dusty-covered outdoor cafes in a then much-safer bustling Big Apple.
Though beset by the Depression starting at age eight, her timing shifted fortunes in 1942. That was this nation’s first full year of fighting in World War II. “As most of the boys were off to war, it was easy to get a teaching job,” she wrote recently wrote in a journal chronicling her career.
But rookie teachers were scoffed at by pupils’ parents. She was startled when counting students on the second day of classes in Maple School in Dearborn, Mich. in 1942, after doing so on opening day. Her class total dropped significantly after day one. “The parents did not want a beginning teacher,” she found out.
But she soon proved herself, initially more to the principal. He was astonished at instructional tactics and routines she quickly mastered. Helen recalled that even after her first day, “the principal said it was the first time a beginning teacher knew what to do.”
This model student, teacher and citizen did veer slightly into mischief in the realm of clandestine recon and signals. Olga Thomson, a gigantic woman with great humor, and Helen devised a way to let each other know whenever a supervisor was making a surprise visit.
Their classrooms were on opposite ends of Maple School. Helen’s room was nearest the main entrance. In case the superintendent sneaked into a back entrance, the teachers had a mutual alert pact. Whoever saw the boss of bosses first would warn the other one, to get her children on their very best behavior.
“Olga told me when I see someone important coming into the building, send a child with a small pair of scissors.” That was the signal. “One day I did — and it was the superintendent of schools. I sent the scissors, before he came into my room.” Olga had more advanced warning, but odds are Helen’s pupils were even better behaved.
And they kept their desks neat and not cluttered, I’m sure. Helen was to cleanliness what Michael Jordan was to scoring basketball points.
Her style was to prod, challenge but encourage. She never told me about trouble students, other than two sons of longtime Dearborn Mayor Orville Hubbard. This was in Helen’s earliest years of teaching. That mayor rivaled Chicago Mayor Richard Daley for longevity and ironclad grip on the political machinery and community.
His sons wanted special treatment, and to goof off. “They told me they’re the mayor’s sons, and they can do what they want.” Not so. By far, parents in prior decades were much more supportive of teachers than in recent times.
Contrast Helen’s style with that of Berton Brooks, my fifth-grade teacher. Think Clint Eastwood: Tall, lean ‘n mean imposing figure. Mr. Brooks heaved a piece of chalk onto the desk of any student talking during class. He was always on target, in about 30 such throws. Once, the talker kept yapping. We then got a physics lesson: If an angry big person throws an eraser 110 mph and if it strikes the front of a desk on their flat sides, then it is loud enough to shock a talkative girl and ignite classroom laughter.
But Mr. Brooks told stories in the final ten minutes, as long as we focused and finished then. And we did. A common and rare excused absence was for a student to go to the Detroit Tigers’ season-opening game at home during school. The Tigers were a beloved institution — like the Atlanta Braves in the Southeast. They won it all in 1968. The goof-off in our fourth-grade class ascended to hero for life, as his father brought in a huge TV for us to watch games on.
In a fun move Helen had a small two-gallon fish tank in her class. Yet a talkative pupil was told to “go to the fish tank, and see how the fish open and close their mouths without making any noise.” That same tank was my first, in a hobby I recently resumed.
Mary Jane Janke was Helen’s affable teaching buddy for decades, was married to another teacher Fred, and was my most fervent encourager to write professionally. Their children Bill and Alice are my lifelong friends. Alice has taught for over 30 years. She has won a Michigan teacher of the year honor.
Alice told me that last Friday, the day Helen died, that Alice assigned her third-grade students in Northville, Mich. a weekend assignment. It was to come up with a handful of life questions about the past, present or future. This is open-ended. She theorizes they might wonder how their parents met, what career the child ends up in, or broader curiosity about the nation and world.
This typifies the imagination and critical thinking that so many teachers triggered in youths.
Helen never taught in my public schools, instead in parochial elementaries in Livonia. Livonia was middle class. Yet we had advanced public-school funding, as voters always voted for the school millage. This was as Baby Boomer youths were students, and so many residents raised school children. Helen studied in Dearborn, where Ford Motor tax revenue was devoted to new cathedrals of learning.
Helen was ahead of her times. She aspired to be a lawyer. She gave in to norms of her generation, when “women weren’t attorneys.” Just as she was proud to earn three degrees, Helen was apt to “give the third degree” if upset and inquisitive.
Yet she turned me loose onto my own in studies, instead of hawking over me. My parents read voraciously throughout their lives. George was very politically aware and involved.
My parents listened mostly to big band and “popular” tunes. The one Beatles song they could stomach was the old-styled ballad “And I Love Her.”
They each enjoyed solo time watching TV. Helen’s favorite comics were all female — Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Mary Tyler Moore then “Laverne and Shirley.” Penny Marshall, who was Laverne, died in recent months. Helen also watched “The Love Boat” in the Seventies. She told me it was fun to take a break from intensity of preparing school lessons, to enjoy mindless entertainment. She sure howled at her favorite shows.
Thankfully, on her final day on Friday though she slipped into a coma Helen radiated peacefulness. Also, still no wrinkles! Both of my parents looked much younger than they were. George’s hair did not grey until in his seventies, and he still had most of it at 99. He golfed for 75 years. Earlier, he played tennis, baseball and basketball. Helen swam while in school. Sidestroke was her favorite, so she could keep her mouth out of the water.
“George is healthy as a horse,” Helen often raved, noting she was shocked to outlive him. She often mused how “I work like a horse!” at school and home. Partly this was her taking housecleaning beyond museum-spotless and neatness levels.
Her strong father Mike Lagos, nicknamed “The Bear,” poured steel in Ford’s huge Rouge plant that was the first auto factory with its own foundry. School groups toured Rouge by walking on the narrow catwalk far above the dim-lit action, in a setting befitting a horror film.
Henry Ford (1863-1947) was the face of Dearborn and American industrial might. During the Depression, Helen periodically saw Ford drive himself in Dearborn — in a Ford, of course. Helen chuckled how Mrs. Clara Ford drove a rival Buick car.
Ford died two days before Helen’s 26th birthday, in spring. That cool night, his Ford Manor’s hydro-powered electricity went out. Folklore is that ‘ole Henry’s spirit did that, Helen noted.
That manor is on the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus where I studied, by a river and nature preserve. It was a center for high-level student-faculty meetings. It is also where a select few of us got to watch “Wednesday with the Wolverines” edited films of the latest football games.
I am forever grateful to both of my parents for their support, encouragement and many life lessons.