A trip through time with Helen Nelson
By MAKAYLA TENDALL
Jefferson resident Helen Nelson has lived through a lot of history — more than 10 decades’ worth — and even after her 104th birthday last month, Nelson can recall the stories of her life with a laugh and a joke.
Two years before the sinking of the Titanic and the invention of the Oreo cookie, Helen Shearman was born on May 19, 1910, in her home on the family’s rural Jefferson farm.
Nelson said her birth was typical when only babies whose parents lived in town were treated to a hospital birth.
While Nelson remembers little of World War I, she does remember using an outside toilet before her family built modern plumbing into their home. Oil lamps lit Nelson’s childhood home for a few years until electricity became the norm.
“We got electricity fairly early. My mother had everything new,” Nelson said.
By way of entertainment, Nelson’s companions included her cousins, brothers and sisters.
Video games, TV and board games had no place in Nelson’s childhood, but the tennis court her father built to occupy his children and keep them close to home did.
The Jazz Age hadn’t quite shimmied into Nelson’s life while she was a “Jake” at the isolated country school, the popular nickname for children who attended the small schoolhouse. After eighth grade, Nelson attended Jefferson High where she sang in the choir.
Getting to school was not what Nelson would describe as easy as sliced bread, which was invented in 1928 along with bubblegum — the same year Nelson graduated from high school.
Nelson and her siblings walked five miles to and from school, uphill both ways, she agreed with a laugh.
After graduation, Nelson and her sister, Dorothy, put on their pinafores and headed to Iowa Methodist Hospital in Des Moines to train as nurses, one of the only job opportunities for women at the time.
While the scatter speech and fast lifestyles of the ’20s may not have reached Nelson and her family, the tendrils of the Great Depression that leeched banks across the nation did.
Like all other families in Jefferson, the Shearman family lost the money they had saved in the bank. But, Nelson said, they had a sizeable farm to fall back on.
Nelson, who said she was one of the first women in nurses’ training, also became one of the most daring women in nurses training, at least by 1930s standards.
“Did you ever get in trouble when you were in nursing school?” Nelson’s daughter, Nancy Rodgers, asked.
“No,” Nelson said quickly.
“Oh, come on now.”
Nelson admitted to getting caught making ice cream for the interns at the hospital in exchange for doing her duties.
“I wasn’t supposed to flirt with the interns,” Nelson confessed. “I was on the fifth floor, and they said if they came down, they would feed the babies if I would make them ice cream. And I did.”
Despite the snafu, Nelson graduated as a registered nurse in 1931, the same year Al Capone was snagged off the streets, the Empire State building was completed and the U.S. officially adopted the national anthem.
Nelson lived with her parents in Jefferson because the effects of the Depression bled into both rural and urban Iowa.
Nelson would catch a train to Des Moines for home visits when nursing jobs were available, a job that wasn’t without risk especially during the early half of the century when women were very much considered an object.
One night, Nelson was called into a wealthy neighborhood in Des Moines, expecting to care for a man’s wife. Nelson caught a taxi that ferried her over to the house.
There was no one in need of a nurse’s professional care; there was a group of men playing cards and looking for a good time. Fortunately for Nelson, the cab driver suspected as much.
“The taxi driver grabbed ahold of me and pulled me back from the door. He said, ‘Wait, let me go first,’ and he pulled open the door. There were a bunch of men having a party,” Nelson said. “He said, ‘Run to the cab,’ and I did. I was scared.
“They just wanted hanky-panky.”
Winning the Prettiest Red Head in Greene County was another feat Nelson achieved during that decade after her mother submitted a picture of her for the contest.
Nelson, who was featured in the local paper, would have had the chance to go to the Iowa State Fair for the statewide leg of the contest that may have led her to the national round in Hollywood, but her father said “good girls don’t do things like that.”
“I didn’t care when he told me I couldn’t go,” Nelson said. “I’d had enough.”
Nelson had more significant people to meet, anyway.
The year Pearl Harbor was attacked and Mount Rushmore was completed, Nelson met her future husband.
Nelson and her sister were at a costume party at a social club. Dorothy was done up in a nice dress and Nelson came as a hobo.
Orman Nelson walked in, and the aspiring doctor was looking for a nurse to complement his future career, Helen joked.
“He said Dorothy looked awful nice, but he thought Helen would be more fun,” Nelson recalled with a laugh.
Orman and Helen Nelson said their vows in July 1942 while Anne Frank wrote in her diary while hiding in an alcove.
Orman had enlisted in the Army and had promised Helen they would marry and he would take her with him.
While the nation was in a severe housing shortage due to the war during Orman’s training, the couple stayed wherever they could, including living in a room with three walls and a curtain and a horse trailer Helen still remembers as smelly.
In 1945, when FDR died, the Germans surrendered, Hitler committed suicide and the U.S. detonated Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs, Nelson was pregnant with her only child.
While pregnant, Nelson remembers her grandmother using food rations to send her goods like cheese.
Seven months pregnant, Nelson traveled from California to Jefferson where she would deliver her baby. Because it was not altogether common for women to travel alone or even drive, Orman’s friend saw her home while he was stuck at the Army base.
Five months after Nancy’s birth, Orman finished his time with the Army and joined his family in Jefferson.
In 1950, when the Korean War began and Sen. Joseph McCarthy created paranoia with his communist witch hunt, the Nelsons rented a motel room in Blair, Neb., because they couldn’t find available housing.
With help from the GI Bill, Orman studied at Dana College while Nancy started kindergarten. After two years, the couple moved to Iowa City while Orman studied medicine and Nancy worked as a school nurse.
When the Cold War, marijuana and LSD and peace rallies gripped the country, Orman began his medical practice in Redfield, Iowa.
When Orman began working at the Redfield hospital, Helen began her time as a homemaker, which was typical of many women at the time.
The Nelsons also began traveling, something that they hadn’t been able to afford.
“He told me that if I would keep my job, he would take me wherever I wanted to go,” Nelson said of the time Orman was in school.
“I thought, ‘Woo!’ ”
The couple eventually visited all 50 states.
While America raced Russia in space exploration and Dr. King led the nation through a civil rights revolution, and The Beatles made teenage girls swoon, Nancy left for college at Iowa State.
In the decade of Watergate, the Nelsons moved back home to Jefferson.
The couple purchased Helen’s childhood dream home at 901 S. Elm St. that she fantasized about living in since Jefferson dentist Dr. Barker built the house in the 1910s.
Orman began his private practice and Helen did bookkeeping for a year. The pair continued their travels, going to places as far as Egypt and Ecuador.
In 1976, when Nancy graduated from Iowa State University, the family traveled to Denmark to meet Orman’s relatives.
The ’80s teemed with cocaine, massive hair, video games, movies and Michael Jackson, but Nancy and Orman kept to life as usual.
They traveled, gardened and — despite a series of heart attacks — Orman still saw patients.
A year after Ferris Bueller took his day off, Nancy married her husband, Dean.
During the time the Soviet Union collapsed and the Internet obsession began, Helen’s husband of 48 years passed away following a stroke.
Helen was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1997. At 87, she underwent six months of chemo.
The Jefferson native remained victorious and lived through the Y2K craze to see the millennium.
Seven years after 9/11 and the start of the War on Terrorism, Nelson was no longer able to live on her own.
In 2008, Nelson moved to Long Term Care at the Greene County Medical Center, where Nancy visits regularly.
Nelson’s sense of humor has lasted 104 years, though she does get frustrated at having to rehash her life story to a reporter after already detailing them to Nancy throughout her life.
“I am 104,” Nelson reminded.
Nelson doesn’t have many secrets to life, but as to how she manages to be 104…
“I just ignore it.”