Remembering Helen Winter Stauffer

Heather Stauffer is an Associate Acquisitions Editor at UNP. She is the granddaughter of Helen Winter Stauffer, a Mari Sandoz scholar. Helen Winter Stauffer (1922-2019), was author of Mari Sandoz and Letters of Mari Sandoz.

Helen Winter Stauffer led an extraordinary life with a vibrant career. Born in South Dakota, her family moved to the Grand Island, Nebraska, area when she was a child. After graduating from Grand Island High School in 1939, she completed a two-year degree at the Colorado Women’s College (now closed) in 1941.

World War II halted any future plans. In October of 1943, Helen became one of the nearly 70,000 women to enlist in the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES) during the war. She completed boot camp in New York and hoped to be stationed on the West Coast—closer to her fiancé Mike Stauffer, also of Grand Island, who was serving with the Coast Guard horse patrol. Miraculously, her request was accepted and she relocated to Alameda Air Force Base near Oakland, California.  Disqualified from being an air traffic controller because she was left-handed, Helen joined an aerial gunnery unit and taught soldiers to shoot guns from planes. Her commanding officer had never had women on base before, and the women’s quarters were heavily regulated. Helen felt very lucky to have weekend liberties with her fiancé, but this, too, was limited to public spaces for a few hours at a time. Mike was not even allowed to visit the lounge in their barracks, and finding quiet places in the city to talk was challenging. The couple was so frustrated that their solution was to “just [get] married.”[1]

And they did. In March of 1944, Helen and Mike married at Alameda Air Force Base and lived in San Francisco for the remainder of the war. Their friends gave tires for wedding presents, which they stacked on their Model A for an extended drive back to Nebraska after being discharged.

Helen and Mike. Courtesy of the family.

Not long after returning, they became the first military couple to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on the GI Bill. After one semester, Mike took a job in Valentine (Nebraska) and Helen found out she was pregnant. Being married and attending college was one matter, but a pregnant woman attending college at that time was certainly not socially acceptable.[2]

A year later, the couple began farming and raising dairy cows outside of Grand Island, and by 1956 their family had expanded to three daughters and a son. During this time, Helen worked as a farm wife and stay-at-home mother, but she knew that returning to school for her teaching certificate would also help the family during lean years. When her youngest daughter, Melody, started kindergarten in 1962, Helen enrolled in classes at Kearney State College. When she could, she carpooled the nearly forty-five miles to Kearney from Grand Island with other housewives.

These were long days, even with Mike and the kids helping with chores and cooking. Helen woke at 4:30 a.m. and left for school when the children did. She was home in time to help with evening chores, then do her homework late into the night. She attributed her success as a student to her family’s support, believing most of the women in her carpool never graduated because their husbands did not support them.[3]

Helen shared her educational milestones with her children. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Kearney State College in 1964, the same year her oldest daughter graduated from high school. While continuing with classes, she taught at Grand Island High School from 1964-1967. She completed her master’s degree in English from Kearney State College in 1968, the same year her son graduated high school. She began her career as an English professor at KSC in 1968, all the while continuing her graduate studies during the summer sessions. About this time, the family left the farm and moved closer to Kearney. In 1974, the Stauffers not only celebrated Melody’s graduation from high school, but also Helen’s completion of her PhD in English literature from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Her dissertation research focused on Mari Sandoz, and she developed the research into the most comprehensive biography of the Nebraska author, Mari Sandoz: Story Catcher of the Plains (Nebraska, 1982). A few years later, she edited a book of correspondences, Letters of Mari Sandoz (Nebraska, 1992). Helen served on the board of directors of the Great Plains Chautauqua, 1987-1994; Nebraska Humanities Council, 1987-1993; Western Literature Association (board directors 1976-1979, 82-85, president 1980); Sandoz Heritage Society (board of directors 1988); and was an active member of Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial, Modern Language Association, National Education Association, among others.

Always a voracious reader, Helen enjoyed discussions in book clubs. Her familiarity of Larry McMurty’s Terms of Endearment led to the creation of a movie role specifically for her (Flap’s secretary).

She became professor emerita at KSC in 1990. She and Mike traveled the globe, and Helen never lost her love of reading. Mike passed away in 2014, the year of their 70th wedding anniversary. Helen moved to Lincoln in 2016, bringing along hundreds of her favorite books, which she sometimes referred to as “friends.”

Helen in 2018. Courtesy of the family.

[1] Helen Winter Stauffer, interview by author, tape recording, Kearney, Nebraska, 3 March 2003.

[2] “A Life Devoted to Mari Sandoz,” Omaha World Herald, January 17, 1993.

[3] Helen Winter Stauffer, interview by author, digital recording, Kearney, Nebraska, 31 March 2015.

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