Born before the guns fell silent on Armistice Day ending World War I; a child when women were first granted the right to vote; a teenager when Prohibition became the law of the land; a young adult on the day that will live in infamy at Pearl Harbor; and now at 103 years old she is living through a seclusion mandate at her nursing home. To say that Helma Lein has lived to see much in her day would be an understatement.
In the United States, life expectancy averages just shy of 80 years, but one Dickinson woman is shattering that mark with each passing every day.
Lein is a resident at Edgewood Hawks Point in Dickinson and is preparing to celebrate her 104th birthday on Saturday, March 28, but due to restrictions for COVID-19, Lein is unable to have any physical contact with visitors, including her 10 grandchildren and and 16 great-grandchildren.
Ask residents or staff members at Edgewood Hawks Point in Dickinson, Helma lights up the facility — even in the darkest of times.
“She is just a sweet, sweet, Gal,” Sharon Wallace, a staff member at Edgewood Hawks Point, said. “She loves writing, she writes stories, she’s an author, she writes poetry, she loves to do crafts. She is just very, very active for her age.”
For her children, she is a respectful, clever woman that cherishes her faith and made sure to teach her children proper North Dakota manners.
“She was very particular about manners,” Rob Lein, Helma’s youngest child, said. “I must have been about 9 years old, I still remember going to church one day in Wing, N.D., and it was snowing that day … and she goes up to the door and stops and I’m behind her. I go, ‘Mom, why aren’t you going in?’ And she said, ‘because a gentleman always opens the door for a lady.’”
Helma has lived through so many historic situations, both World Wars, not being allowed to vote, the flu epidemic in which her mother lost her life when Helma Lein was 2, battling the Great Depression, witnessing 9/11, the passing of her husband, Ray, and her first child, Roene, battling a heart attack, and now, witnessing the world change due to COVID-19. But even now, as Rob mentioned, she continues to go through life as she always does through her faith.
“Mom has been able to handle (tough situations) very well,” Rob said. “And it’s because of her faith.”
Helma Lein said that through tough times, like now, being isolated nearing her 104th birthday, she continues to find beauty in writing.
“I am just thankful I am a writer,” Helma Lein said. “I feel that it is a good pastime, a good brain game. It satisfies me now that I have to be more confined.”
She loves to tell stories as well, including her own — the one in which not many people have the privilege of telling: the life of an over 100-year-old woman from North Dakota.
Lein was born on March 28, 1916, on a farm 25 miles south of Mandan, nearly two years into World War I. She was born to her father, Nels Roe, and mother, Hannah Roe, both immigrants from Norway. Lein was one of the Roes’ five children.
After losing their mother, Nels, a carpenter, was unable to take care of each of the five children, so he sent Lein and one of her brothers to live with relatives in Jamestown. Her youngest sister was taken by relatives in South Dakota. After the war was over, each of the siblings returned back to her father’s farm.
At 14, Lien left her father’s barn again, but because of a job.
“When I was 14, a neighborly lady asked me to drive her two little girls to school,” Lien said. “So I moved to her place and I did that for two years, then I was ready for high school.”
After graduating from high school, Lein attended Bismarck College and studied secretarial in business. However, while in college she met Ray Lein, who would eventually be her husband. After graduation, Lien worked as a secretary for the Bismarck Tribune.
“They were needing secretaries and three of us from the college got jobs at the Bismarck Tribune,” Lein said. “I was there for about five years, and then a cousin of mine in Seattle told me to go to Seattle so I could earn a better salary. So I did that for a year and I stayed with some friends.”
Lien promised her then fiance, Ray, she would only live in Seattle for a year. She kept her promise and returned to North Dakota and got married. But then came the arrival of World War II.
“Within a year, he was called to serve,” Lein said. “And the camp was in San Diego, so I moved there and I got a job with a construction company and then with the U.S. Navy. I worked there for a few years, while my husband was overseas.”
During the war, Lein and her husband were able to tour the world, visiting countries such as Mexico, Bahamas, Puerto Rico, Acapulco, Austria, Norway, Spain and the continent of Africa.
“It was like a history lesson,” she said. “We enjoyed all of the trips, maybe one more than any other in Norway, because of my heritage.”
Near the end of WWII, Helma and Ray had their first child, Roene. Their second child, Connie, followed three years later. After WWII was completed, the Leins moved to Wing, her husband’s hometown, and opened a grocery store that also sold supplies such as televisions and microwave ovens.
The Leins kept the store active for 30 years, and throughout their businesses they were always happily married. During the era in which the Leins ran their grocery store, their third and final child, Rob, was born. Helma was 40 years old when she had Rob, now 63.
“They had a very happy marriage,” Rob said. “My dad was a very, very forward, very outgoing person. But when it was her time, she did it in her sly way. My dad would try and get things done in a very forceful way, she would try and get things done in a sly way. And somehow they complimented each other in that way.”
“It was a very good time to start a business,” Lein said. “When televisions came in we sold a lot of those, and when microwaves came in we sold a lot of those as well.”
Following the closing of the store, Ray opened a real estate business with his brother, but the success was not able to be shared for long.
“About two years after he started the business, he got cancer of the esophagus,” Lein said. “He didn’t live very long after that.”
Lien took the loss hard, but continued to push forward and show her three kids that moving on was the only thing they had to do.
“I didn’t like being alone,” Lein said. “So I got a job at the symphony office and I worked part time at the hospital … I worked there for about two years, but because my oldest daughter lived in Dickinson and I had no family in Bismarck, I decided to move to Dickinson.”
While living in Dickinson, Helma and her three children dealt with a hazardous situation in which Lein suffered a heart attack. But Lein fought through and was able to continue her life. However, she then moved to Edgewood Hawks Point in Dickinson, where she has been for over 11 years.
Lein now spends her time writing poetry,with some of her writings even being published in The Dickinson Press. She is thankful for Edgewood Hawks Point, where she never feels alone.
“I am just thankful for Edgewood Hawks Point institution and all the kind people,” she said. “And the good health that I have been blessed with. I’m not saying it’s been perfect, but I consider it good health.”
Lien continues to live every day like she always had, through her writing, through her smiling, and most importantly, through her faith.