A Lock of Hair and a Salute to my Visible Figure

(Photo credit: Mama Helen collage by Ann Wead Kimbrough) 

Photo by Eric Draper, Courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Library –https://www.flickr.com/photos/usnationalarchives/6106437263President w:George W. Bush, White House Chief of Staff w:Andy Card (left), Donald Richards (far left) and Admiral w:Richard Mies conduct a video tele-conference at w:Offutt Air Force Basein Bellevuew:Nebraska. U.S. National Archives’ Local Identifier: P7093-16

We called her Mama Helen.  We could not call her Grandma or Grandmother Helen; she was Mama Helen, a name she requested that all of her grandchildren call her during this magnificent lady’s marvelous life. Since I was #3 in order of grandchildren born to Mama Helen, I quickly got in line with the name calling requirement. Names and titles were a big deal for this grand lady who was my mother’s mother.

What’s significant about Mama Helen’s work years at U.S. Strategic Air Command (USSTRATCOM  or “SAC,” is her allegiance to our country as she worked in a top-secret capacity during the period when the U.S. Air Force’s underground command bunker was built in the 1950s and 1960s. Offutt is well-known for several top military activities designed to protect U.S. inhabitants from nuclear war and other such enemy forces. The Nebraska base where Mama Helen worked is best known in modern times for being the site where U.S. President George Bush, Jr.  was taken during the Sept. 11, 2001 attack upon the United States. The underground bunker is designed to withstand a nuclear attack.

My mother recently told me that Mama Helen would have been a factor in the #MeToo movement. It occurred to me after reading the book and viewing, “Hidden Figures,” that I had one in my own family and that visible figure was Mama Helen. Mama Helen was an employee in a military organization.  We never knew all of “top secret” projects that Mama Helen worked on during her employment between the 1940s through early 1960. We just knew that Mama Helen was held in a high esteem because of her skills, yet she endured lots of discrimination.

She dressed to the ‘nines’ and Mama Helen NEVER let us see or hear the stress from her work, her long and sometimes harrowing drives to work and other similar matter. Her official title was an administrative assistant to the scientists at Offutt Air Force Base, which Nebraskans referred to as “SAC.”  My Mom got a job at the air force base while Mom was in her teens and Mama Helen’s daughter recalls the prior-to-the-sun-rising meetings where Mom and Mama Helen ‘caught their ride’ through uneven roads that led to Offutt. The ride was equally long and challenging home in the evenings.

Mama Helen retired from Offutt Air Force Base in the 1960s and immediately began to serve young women. Mama Helen passed on to her next great adventure at the age of 90 in 2008. Since that time, each day I have either worn a piece of her jewelry and/or carry an object of her courage. She raised six children and was married twice.

Mama Helen inspired me in many ways and here are a few of the major ones:

  1. On the day she was being transported by ambulance from her condo to the hospice in Omaha, she telephoned me to boast that she was able to vote for a “black president.” She died 22 days later.
  2. She was the consummate community volunteer.
  3. She read Opera scores and was a sought-after production team member in the Omaha theatre community.
  4. She acquired quality jewelry during her world travels and those of her supervisors.
  5. She typed at the highest speed I ever witnessed on a non-electric machine. It made me wish to type to beat her record of 160 WPM – error free.
  6. She gave birth to six children and all succeeded in their respective professions.
  7. She held quality time for each of her many grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
  8. She was born in April and assured me that the best people (especially me) were born that month. The first memorable gift that I recall from Mama Helen was a tabletop book about the great leaders of the world.
  9. She never learned to drive a vehicle, yet was very mobile and active. She instilled in me the spirit of adventure, reading and following one’s passion while serving the community.
  10. When she retired, Mama Helen followed one of her many callings and that was train young women in career fields.
  11. She tithed her talents, finances and love to her church and the community.

To say that I miss Mama Helen is an understatement. I keep a lock of her hair sealed in a plastic bag and include it among my special collection of her jewelry, writings and memories.

For a little more about this phenomenal woman, see http://www.chsfomaha.org/news-2/693-mary-douthy