©Yuet-Sim Darrell Chiang, 2015

©Yuet-Sim Darrell Chiang, 2015

The True Story of My Mother

The Hotel La Salle was the biggest and most beautiful building Helen had ever seen. The National 4 H Convention in 1928 held some of its meetings in the red room, which had gilt pillars and ceilings, and red velvet walls. The gold chandeliers hung from the ceilings by red velvet ropes. They had their meals in the Palm Room, with real palms trees in pots, and murals of naked Greek women on the walls. Helen stole embarrassed glances at the fountain in the middle of the room, the one with the naked boy on the top. The Lions Club had been founded in that very hotel in 1917.

She had traveled all the way to Chicago from Dutton, Montana (population 500) for the convention. Her friends from 4H in Dutton, Cathlyn Schabel and Blossom Dale (really from Bole, over near Fairfield) had taken the Milwaukee Railroad south to Harlowtown and there picked up the eastbound Oriental Limited to Chicago. They had left from Great Falls the day after Thanksgiving.

One day they all got to go shopping at Marshall Fields and the Boston Store. On another day, they were taken to the Field Museum. And they toured every stockyard and farm implement company for miles around. At each one, there were banquets and speeches and demonstrations of equipment or of meat packing. Helen thought that the Union Stockyard Gate looked like the entrance to a castle, but inside, they showed the 4H kids how they killed the cattle.

Every day when they had free time, Helen, Cathlyn, and Blossom would go down to the drugstore fountain on the first floor of the hotel and have a piece of cherry pie. Once Cathlyn dropped her piece on the floor, and after their initial horror, they thought it was the funniest thing that had ever happened to them.

They also took a government sponsored I.Q. test while they were there. There was later a write-up in the Dutton newspaper on the results:

At a convention recently held in Chicago, with eight hundred delegates from all over the country, the United States government conducted an “intelligence test” in which one of our girls, Helen Sollid, placed third in the scoring. This is surely something to be proud of, and reflects great credit on the schools of Dutton and the quality of its citizenship. It shows that we raise not only wheat with the highest protein content, but children with the highest brain content.

Later, Helen was quick to point out that the first place winner was a student from Carleton College, six years older.

At the awards banquet the last night, they had roast beef (again) and potatoes and corn. On the salad were slices of pineapple. Helen began to feel a little ill, and went up to her room. When Cathlyn and Blossom came up later, Helen said that she had the chills. They piled blankets and winter coats on her, but nothing could warm her up. The girls were frightened, and called the Teton County Agent Bob Clarkson, their chaperone. He saw that Helen was very sick and called the hotel physician, Dr. Graves, who came up immediately.

“Pneumonia,” he declared. But Helen didn’t hear him; she had sunk into something like a coma.

Telephone lines had not reached Dutton yet, so Bob Clarkson called his wife in Choteau, thirty miles away, and she drove over to Dutton with the news. Helen’s father George went into immediate action. He drove to Great Falls, and persuaded Earl Vance, one of Montana’s early aviators, to fly him to Bismark, North Dakota the next morning. He sat behind the pilot in the open cockpit. In Bismark, he caught up with the Oriental Limited and arrived in Chicago the next day. Helen was still in a coma when he got to the La Salle. All the 4H conventioneers had gone, and the manager had kept the floor Helen was on vacant. The hotel had planned on renovating the rooms after the convention had left, but since Helen couldn’t be moved, they just decided to wait until she was better.

In 1928, there was nothing to do for pneumonia but wait it out and hope. Just before George arrived, Dr. Graves had asked colleagues from the University of Chicago Medical School to visit Helen to see if there was anything they could do. There wasn’t.

On the third or fourth day, Helen finally woke up, and everyone was relieved. For a long time there was nothing Helen could do but lie in bed. She could look outside her window and see across the street one of the old fancy movie houses. The marquee was advertising the latest move: “The Jazz Singer.”

Miss Vangel Russell, the 4H representative from Montana, decided to stay in Chicago until Helen was better, and wrote to Helen’s mother from time to time about her progress: “This morning when I went in she was a bit blue since her temp was a bit above normal and since her daddy is planning to have his tonsils out today—but she is all encouraged now—and is her sweet smiling self—I surely have fallen in love with her. Even as sick as she has been and as lonesome as she must have felt right at first— she hasn’t cried a single little whimper and I think that is certainly splendid for a girl of her age. She always has a smile and feels ‘just fine.’”

In one letter, she talked about the nurse who took care of Helen: “’Dimples’ the nurse, is a dear—she is always smiling & kids Helen a lot about one thing and another. Helen wants me to tell Alice [Helen’s little sister] that the nurse has lovely medium dark red hair which she wears waved & back of one ear. She’s very cute and has deep dimples all over her face. We are all crazy about her. Each morning she gives Helen her bath & changes her bed at nite and waits on her all day & all nite.”

Helen’s father did have his tonsils out while he was in Chicago, and he almost bled to death as a result. When he came back to the hotel after staying overnight in the hospital, he looked very ill and Helen was quite worried about him.

There were prayer meetings in Dutton for Helen’s recovery; letters and flowers came to her from 4H clubs and officials all over the country. Flowers and a letter also came from Mr. E.N. Hopkins, Public Relations Manager for Meredith Publishing in Des Moines (Better Homes and Gardens, Successful Farming, The Dairy Farmer). He wrote to “Miss Helen Sollid, 4-H Club Member, 5th Floor, La Salle Hotel,” and the letter began “Dear Friend: Of course we were all anxious about you, but felt that you would pull through the attack of pneumonia.” He ended it by saying “I was sorry not to see you and have a visit with you before I left Chicago, but I knew that you were one of the splendid, loyal 4-H girls, and was glad to do all I could.”

When she was feeling better and could move around, Helen would have dinner in the dining room with Dr. Graves and his wife. She thought it odd that Dr. Graves every evening took ice out of his water glass to cool his coffee.

She did not get to go home for Christmas, but the day after, she was well enough to travel. When she got into the taxi to go the train station, it was the first time she had been out of the hotel in a month. As Helen and her father traveled at night through Wisconsin on the Oriental Limited, looking at the Christmas lights in the little towns, the hotel La Salle already began to seem like a dream.

While it wasn’t exactly like Madeline in Paris, it had been an adventure. And her younger sister Betty never quite forgave her for all the attention she received.

©Stephen Tollefson, 2015

Steve Tollefson, BAWP 1978, has been teaching writing at UC Berkeley since 1973. He recently retired as Director of the UC Berkeley Office of Educational Development, but continues as a lecturer in the College Writing Programs. As the son of a Lutheran minister, he tries to practice what he preaches to his students.

3 Responses to “Helen at the La Salle by Stephen Tollefson”

  1. Linda Lee Peterson Says:

    Oh, Steve…I had never heard this intrepid Helen story — what a gift! I loved all of it, the plain, perfect, straightforward language, Helen as heroine (she would have come in first in that competition, except that (a) she was much younger than that uppity first-placer and (b) her life was very full of other things), Helen as omni-present, omni-intentional observor even in the midst of a pneumonia scare…anyway, I love the story and the storyteller, complete with a light, elegant, authentic touch. from the plane, with love…

  2. jane juska Says:

    Willa Cather comes to mind. She would admire Helen as do I. Thank you.

  3. […] this particular exchange, but I’m pretty sure they were connected in some way. Luring (mine). Helen at the La Salle […]

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