Turning 106: Dickinson woman celebrates another birthday
Helm Lein, of Dickinson, turned 106 years old on Monday, March 28. We visited with Helma on her life from driving grain wagons with horses to town, becoming a secretary for The Bismarck Tribune, traveling with her husband every three years to a foreign country and living through some of the most groundbreaking moments of the 20th and 21st centuries.
DICKINSON — There are very few in today’s world who can say they lived during both World Wars, the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, JFK's assassination, the 80s and more. In Dickinson, North Dakota, Helma Lein has lived through more than 100 years of life changing history for not only the United States, but humanity.
Helma, a resident at Edgewood Hawks Point, celebrated her 106th birthday on Monday, March 28. During a visit with The Dickinson Press, Helma spoke on her life and shared her unique wisdom.
“I don’t want to brag about myself, but I think I’ve been a kind person. I’ve followed my father’s footsteps, I think,” she said.
Born in 1916 on a farm 25 miles south of Mandan, Helma grew up with four siblings. Her father, Nels Roe, and mother, Hannah Roe, were both immigrants from Norway. At just 2 years old, Helma lost her mother to the flu epidemic. After the tragic loss, Nels, a carpenter, was unable to take care of each of the five children, so he sent Helma and one of her brothers to live with their Uncle Ron in Jamestown. Once they were old enough to attend school, each of the siblings returned back to their father’s farm.
When she was 14, there was a neighbor down the road who needed help getting her two young daughters to school. She asked Helma, “Will you drive them?”
“I said, ‘Yeah, I know how to drive horses.’ So I had a little buggy and a horse and did that for two years,” she said, adding that the horse-drawn ride to school was about 4 miles. “My dad didn’t have a car until I was in high school, so we had horses and buggies and sleds in the winter… Yeah, we had to bundle up in the winter.”
Growing up on a farm and working alongside her brothers gave her ambitions that have lasted a lifetime.
“I think the fact that I lost my mother, my dad sort of taught us a lot of things that we wouldn’t have learned… I know that a lot of girls don’t take a grain wagon to town with horses,” she said. “I cultivated corn. I think you do when you have to. You just do it… My dad trusted us, I think.”
In 1935, Helma graduated high school from Elgin, North Dakota, and begged her father if she could further her studies and attend college — which was less heard of for women of her time.
“He said, ‘Well, we’ll see.’ Then he gave in,” she said, with a chuckle. “... I didn’t feel any different. I had the same upbringing of many farm children.”
She pursued secretarial studies for one year at Capitol Commercial College in Bismarck. It wasn’t long after that The Bismarck Tribune was placing an order for three secretaries. Helma was selected to be one of them; she was just 20 years old.
Stepping foot into the newspaper publication was new territory for the small-town farmgirl, Helma said, adding she “had a lot to learn.” At first, she was stationed at a telephone switchboard. For five years, she grew to be acquainted with all of the departments and worked her way up, taking dictation — shorthand — from the president of The Bismarck Tribune.
Then she got a call from a cousin in Seattle, telling her to move out of North Dakota for more opportunity. By this time, Helma was engaged to be married to Ray, whom she had met at church choir. She decided to take the big move nonetheless and tested the waters for one year, working at a radio advertising company.
Having promised to return, Helma moved back to Bismarck and married Ray. Though the married couple were eager to start their lives, the attack of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and a raging second World War halted any plans. Ray was called to serve in the U.S. Army, and stationed in San Diego; Helma followed him across the country.
“He went to the Phillipines Islands after we were in San Diego for about four years. And luckily, he was there at the time that the war ended. He was there only about a year and then he got to come home,” she said. “It was hard. Newly married and there, off he goes. It was hard.”
Once WWII ended, the Leins moved to Ray’s hometown of Wing, North Dakota, and bought a store that they would run for the next 30 years. Raising their three children, Helma worked on Saturdays and became a homemaker.
While running the store, the Leins were treated to a trip every three years from a company they bought their groceries from. At first, the couple went to baseball games in Minneapolis and Milwaukee. The couple would then take their ventures across the world, traveling to the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Austria, Bulgaria, Spain, Portugal and Africa.
“We just ate it up,” she said, smiling. “We saw something different in every country. And if you’re interested in geography like we were, we just took advantage of being educated because… each country is a little different.”
The Leins were married for 43 years, until Ray was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. At 68 years old, Helma became a widow. The death of her husband was a shock, she said, but she pushed on.
“How did I cope? I went back to work. I stayed home a little while, but I just felt I had to do something. So I knew I could get in to the hospital and I could also get into the symphony office… So I started at the hospital, and then they called me for the symphony. So I worked there for a while,” she said.
Her oldest daughter was living in Dickinson and encouraged her mother to move to southwestern North Dakota — so she did.
Throughout her life, Helma has lived through pain, suffering and blessings. From the deaths of her loving husband and oldest daughter to traveling the globe, Helma has lived a life full of experiences. When asked her what keeps her young and thriving, Helma replied with a snippet of advice that she was given long, long ago.
“The doctor always told me, ‘Stay away from alcohol and cigarettes,’” she said, giggling. “And I did. Not necessarily because he said that, but my husband was like that too.”
Helma now spends her time writing poetry, with some of her writings even being published in The Dickinson Press as part of an annual Christmas special.
Though some might say turning 106 is a milestone, to Helma it’s just another birthday.
“I don’t even think about it,” she said, pausing for a moment. “If I were sick, I’d think about it. But I’m well enough to get going in the morning just like I usually do.”