LANCASTER, Wis. — Helen Anderson spent the second half of her life pursuing the passions that she had little time for during the first.
Born in 1937 to an Irish Catholic family, she lived under the rigid yoke of expectations. Helen was to attend college, marry and have children.
The longtime Lancaster resident would prove that her life could be more remarkable.
“She was going to do what she wanted,” said her son John Goerner. “To hell with anyone who was going to cut her off or stop her.”
Helen, 83, died from metastatic cancer on March 17. She was the fourth in her family, after her mother, brother and father, to succumb to the disease.
Helen grew up in Chicago. After graduating from high school in 1955, she attended Mundelein College in Chicago for three years. She married in her early 20s and had four children: John, the eldest, followed by Mary Goerner, Nancy Jackson and Alan Goerner.
The family later moved to Skokie and Fox River Grove, Ill.
She signed the girls up for lessons in baton twirling, an activity similar to color guard.
“That was one thing my mom was good at — exposing us to interests and hobbies,” Mary said.
To help make ends meet, Helen co-founded a business that sold twirling costumes. They called the company Show Off.
Mary and Nancy practiced twirling daily and were charged with cutting costume patterns. Later, they took up horseback riding.
“When you start something, you need to finish,” Helen often told her children.
Helen divorced her first husband in the early 1970s. About a year later, a friend introduced her to the handsome attorney who would become her second.
The matchmaking came under the ruse of a horseback riding lesson. It, incidentally, was taught by Mary, who was not privy to the friend’s intentions.
Helen and Ted married in 1977, marking a new start to her life.
The couple, Helen’s four children and Ted’s son, Chip Anderson, moved to a farm in Greenwood, Ill.
Ted’s relaxed demeanor complemented Helen’s Irish temper.
She would not let Alan get away with pulling “any dirt,” whether it be staying out late or smoking cigarettes.
“You definitely didn’t want to get into a battle with her because you’re not going to win,” Alan said.
When the children had grown and moved out, Helen relished the newfound freedom. She returned to college to complete her bachelor’s degree. Helen took flying lessons, purchased her own airplane and earned a pilot’s license.
She discovered her future Lancaster home while real estate hunting with Ted from the air. They flew in their planes over Grant County, struck by its beauty.
The countryside brought a sense of stillness her life in Chicago had lacked.
“You just hear the birds. You don’t hear traffic. … You cannot hear people,” Mary said. “She loved getting snowed in.”
Ted ingrained in her and the children an understanding of the importance of philanthropy and service.
“That was the basis of their marriage,” John said. “They agreed they were going to be people who give back.”
They contributed to numerous Lancaster initiatives, including the establishment of a city dog park, renovation of Schreiner Memorial Library and the restoration of the Blue Boy Civil War statue.
Helen and Ted traveled extensively, including to Europe, Africa and Hawaii. But after they moved to Lancaster, they did not have to look far for new places to explore.
“They had a beautiful area right there,” Nancy said. “They would just pick a town and go.”
The scenic vistas and bluffs provided abundant opportunities for Helen to pull the car to the roadside and practice photography. She kept a camera on her person, even on restaurant tables. Her work garnered state and national recognition.
At her Lancaster farm, Helen operated a studio and art gallery. Ted still commuted by plane to his law practice in Chicago.
His health declined as the effects of Alzheimer’s disease creeped into his life. Ted spent his final five years living at Orchard Manor Nursing Home in Lancaster.
In a 2016 interview with the Telegraph Herald, almost one month after Ted’s death, Helen said photographing nature helped her cope emotionally.
“That was her outlet,” Mary said. “Most stuff she got involved with, it just became a passion. … But I think photography was the most important because it was produced by her.”
Helen remained on the farm, but she was not alone. She adopted a German shepherd named Dillon, who made her feel safe.
Helen received her own cancer diagnosis on March 1. Doctors gave her three months to live, then revised that estimate to a few weeks.
She approached her impending death frankly.
“She was so upbeat about it,” Nancy said. “‘That’s how it is, and you need to help me wrap up my life.’”
Helen died just 16 days later, without pain.
“Her main concern of everything were her two cats,” Mary said. “In the end, the photography and the farm and the gallery didn’t mean anything.”
In her later years, Helen gave up activities she did not particularly enjoy, such as cooking and cleaning.
She warned her daughters before visits that her house was cluttered. Helen simply did not want to spend her final years doing things she did not want to.
She ate what she wanted, too. Chicken strips and potato chips.
“Over the years with her, if we would go out to dinner … half of us would want dessert,” Mary said.
Helen politely declined to order any, perhaps, chocolate mousse pie.
“I knew that within about 30 seconds that little fork would be in her hand,” Mary said.
“Mom, get your own,” Mary would say.
“No, I just want a bite,” Helen replied.
A few minutes later, and she would have cleaned the plate.