Individually each one these women were amazing in their own right.
Kathryn Amanda Dechert Krill August 24, 1911 – January 10, 1998 A Rosie the Riveter and Small Business Owner
Mabel Mae Dechert Swanger October 24, 1912 – March 3, 2013 Pursued a Career as a Hairdresser in her 40’s
Helen Grace Dechert Danko September 13, 1920 – April 10, 2015 Registered Nurse, ran the health services for students at DeSales University
Elizabeth “Betty” Mary Dechert Koblentz Kutz November 12, 1926 – July 11, 2011 Beauty Shop Owner
Mildred “Mickey” Alice Dechert Bortz March 23, 1928 – July 10, 2020 Home Health Care Provider, long before it was ever classified as a real occupation
As a group though, they were a force to be reckoned with.
All strong women forging their own paths at a time when that was not the protocol for women, they were certainly pioneers. BUT they didn’t see it that way. They never saw themselves as anything other than ordinary.
BUT ordinary they were not.
They were feminists before feminists were a thing, but they never came off as anything other than caring, loving women, who wanted nothing more than the best for every person they ever met, especially their family.
Family always came first, no matter what.
They loved completely, lived fully, and persevered through some of the toughest situations: divorce, loss of a spouse, loss of a child, health challenges, and financial difficulties.
And lived through some of histories greatest events: The Great Depression, World War I and World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, President Kennedy’s Assassination, Watergate Scandal, Persian Gulf War, and the Terrorists Attacks on 911.
Plus, endured ridicule for being poor, their heritage, their “duchy accent”, and their religion/faith.
YET, they never flinched.
Did they cry? Most definitely. No matter how resilient they were, they were human, with huge hearts that felt everything.
Did they get angry? Sure, why wouldn’t they? Once again, they were human, and felt everything very deeply.
Did they retaliate? ABSOLUTELY NOT, it wasn’t in their nature. They wouldn’t stoop to the attackers level. That was not who they were.
They had each other’s back and were always there to support one another. They were all cut from the same cloth and they understood each other better than anyone else.
Regardless of what they may have been confronting, others always came first. A rarity no matter what era. Their empathy for their fellow man was greater than any struggle they may have been enduring.
Kassie, Mabel, Helen, Betty and Mickey, lived their lives by following the Golden Rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
They were the “Personification of Love and Kindness.”
Their every action was motivated by their deep, unadulterated love of family and their fellow man. At their core they knew nothing more.
The Dechert Sisters legacy of love left an indelible mark on the hearts of all who knew them. They may have achieved great things, but who they were at their core, what made their souls shine, is how they are remembered.
“You have no idea what your legacy will be because your legacy is every life you touch.” – Maya Angelou
Their children and grandchildren cherish every memory they have and honor the beauty of their souls by trying to carry on their legacy.
Living up to these women’s example is a tough feat, but the amount of love that flows through this extended family is a true extension of the love these five beautiful women bestowed upon every one of them.
Family continues to be the priority for each of their children and grandchildren, and it’s obvious the circle of love will continue for generations to come.
Especially by keeping their astonishing stories alive.
Mildred, better known as “Mickey” was the 5th and youngest daughter of Sallie and David Dechert, but in no way was she ever really the “baby” of the family other than in age.
By the time she was an adult, Mickey’s home became the central meeting point for all the sisters and their families.
AND, she sort of became the keeper of all that was going on within the extended family. She was like the central switchboard operator, with all lines of communication going through her.
I’m thinking some of this was because Mickey, by choice, stayed in Myerstown, while all the other sisters ventured out beyond their little hometown, SO, by default, she became the center of the family without even realizing it.
BUT, there were also the unique relationships Mickey forged with each one of her sisters.
All the sisters were very tight and absolutely loved spending time together, but because there was such a large gap in age between Mickey and her older sisters Kassie and Mabel, the dynamics between them was different than with she and Betty, who was just two years older.
Kassie and Mabel were teenagers by the time Mickey and Betty were born and actually helped to raise the youngest Dechert girls, but in no way did they ever resent this though. As a matter, by the time Mickey and Betty were school age, both Kassie and Mabel were married, and along with their husbands, would often take the girls places, and even buy them little gifts.
SO, instead of being “older” sisters who dominated their younger siblings, they were Mickey and Betty’s equal, which you don’t often find between younger and older siblings with a large age gap. And this bond of equality just tightened, as they got older.
Now Helen was only 6 when Mickey was born, which is not as much of a gap, but enough of one that allowed Helen to also step in to help with her younger sisters whenever she was called upon. But in no way did that impact the dynamics between Helen and her younger siblings. She too felt like their equal, not an older sibling who could boss them around.
As a matter of fact, Mickey and Helen and their families became extremely close over the years, in part because of the closeness in age between their children, but even more so because they had very similar personalities.
Plus they both inherited their Mother Sallie’s baking gene carrying on the traditional Pennsylvania German treats they grew up on.
Now Mickey and Betty, being the youngest, were tight as tight could be. As a matter of fact, it was Betty who had a hand in Mickey meeting her husband Forrest.
As the story goes, Mickey had been dating a young man who turned out to be not the best match for her, so they split up. After this adventure Mickey, who would have been in her early 20’s, was not in any hurry to start dating again. Betty however disagreed, and being the charmer that she was, talked Mickey into joining her and her husband Bob to a dance at a local social club.
Forrest, who was chatting with a friend when the threesome arrived, spotted Mickey right away. When his friend commented about the red head who just arrived, Forrest commented, not the red head, the blonde.
For Forrest It was love at first sight, and he wasn’t going let that blonde leave without finding out who she was.
Finding a table near Mickey, Betty and Bob, Forrest was able to keep tabs on Mickey and when the time was right asked her to dance. Mickey was very reluctant at first, but eventually gave in, and upon doing so Forrest told her every dance that night was his.
As the evening was drawing to a close, Forrest overheard Mickey, Betty and Bob discussing going to a diner for breakfast. Not one to back down, Forrest showed up at the diner, and before you knew it he was sitting with the three of them.
And that pretty much sealed the relationship.
Forrest, who lived outside of Myerstown, would come into town to visit Mickey as often as possible. The two started dating seriously and by early 1951 the two were married, and their first child, Jimmy (Jim), was born in October.
After WW2, Forrest had taken advantage of the college incentive available and headed to Kutztown University where he got a degree in art education. When he met Mickey he was teaching at a high school in Reading, but when things got serious between them he took a job as a serviceman for Metropolitan Edison Electric Co.
At one point, he even had an offer to work on TV sets in New York City, but Mickey had no interest in leaving Myerstown, so without giving it a second thought, Forrest found work that was more suitable to support a wife and family.
Having an outgoing personality paid off in the promotion department for Forrest, who by 1956 was a “right of way” agent for MetEd, which helped support, their growing family.
In 1957, their second child Kathy Rose was born, with Judy Lynn soon after in 1960, and their youngest, Mike, in 1965.
Mickey loved being a mother. She was a natural and it was her greatest joy, which is why the loss of a child, Johnny, in 1958, was beyond devastating for her. He had only lived for one day, which about destroyed Mickey.
Thank goodness she had her sisters to support her through this crushing loss. Especially Kassie, who stepped in to help with Kathy. In so doing it allowed Mickey the time she needed to heal and figure out how to move forward.
As it turns out, Mickey’s dedication and devotion to her children and family would be her saving grace. Her world revolved around them and it showed in the tender loving care she put into everything, from her cooking, baking, housekeeping and selfless support of everyone in her life, not just her family.
Whenever anyone needed help Mickey was there. Early on she and Forrest took in her parents David and Sallie when David become ill, and Sallie lived with Mickey and her family until she passed in 1972. Sallie was senile late in her life, so there were some interesting days to say the least, but through it all Mickey was always upbeat and had a big smile on her face.
The bond between Sallie and Mickey was extremely tight, and this was evident in the story of Sallie’s passing.
At the end of her life Sallie was in a coma at the hospital. With nothing more they could do, the doctors told Mickey it was best to bring her home, and just make her comfortable till her time came. Upon bringing Sallie into the house, she opened her eyes, grabbed Mickey’s arm and said “Mickey it’s so nice to be home.”
Sallie passed a few days later and although the loss was very painful for Mickey, she knew by Sallie’s last words she had done right by her Mother.
It wasn’t just her parents that lived with Mickey and her family. Her sister Betty stayed with them after her divorce from Bob until she could reestablish herself. And her sister Kassie and her husband Krilly stayed with them while they built their home.
For Mickey and Forrest, it was always the more the merrier. Forrest was the Master of Ceremonies and Mickey the gracious host.
Family was the most important thing to Mickey, and having the family together, whether it be just her immediate family or the extended family, brought her pure happiness.
Along with these gatherings came massive amounts of food, all of which Mickey was thrilled to prepare. She was in her element in the kitchen. She loved to cook and bake, and boy was she good at it. Every dish was made from scratch, and everything was fantastic.
Mickey had her specialties, and to this day no one has ever matched them.
In the baking department it was treats like her lemon sponge/meringue pie, shoo fly pie (her pie crust was phenomenal), chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting, snowball cookies, snicker doodles, and sand tarts.
AND, can’t forget her spectacular baked beans (from scratch) with lots of bacon, homemade Mac and Cheese, fried chicken, spaghetti sauce and juicy roast beef.
As a matter of fact, her daughter Kathy is in the process of putting together a cookbook for the family, so all her recipes can be passed down from generation to generation. Her biggest problem though is translating “a pinch of this,” or “some of that to taste.”
Some of Mickey’s secrets were inherited from her Mother Sallie, but a few of them she learned while working at the Bahney House, a local restaurant. Although she was a waitress, the chef and Mickey became good friends and she often helped him in the kitchen. This just helped to fuel her love of cooking.
Come the holidays, Mickey made a feast fit for King, with quantities large enough to feed an army. For example, her Thanksgiving meal would include: turkey and gravy, candied sweet potatoes, PA Dutch style potato filling, dried & yellow corn, broccoli with brown butter, pepper cabbage, cranberry sauce, warm rolls, fruit salad, and for dessert either pumpkin, mincemeat or apple pie.
AND, don’t think you’d get away from the table without having seconds. Mickey would be sure to stop you and say “You haven’t had a nauthin.” Even though you were stuffed and could barely move.
When she and Forrest won a kitchen makeover, she was beyond excited. This was sometime in the 60’s when Jimmy was in high school and Mike, the youngest child, was just a baby, so the timing was perfect. It allowed them to open up the kitchen from two rooms to one large room, which was ideal for all the family gatherings.
Mickey loved to entertain and have a good time. When she and Forrest were dating they often had Betty and Bob over for high balls. And early on she established New Years Eve as her holiday to have her sisters and their husbands over to celebrate and ring in the New Year.
She and Forrest also socialized outside their home as often as they could, even winning a jitterbug contest at some point.
They were also both very active with the American Legion and VFW, helping Kassie and her husband Krilly run bingo and other events. Even letting Kathy and one her friends help recall the numbers.
Before Helen lost her husband Bill, Mickey and Forest would often visit them in the Lehigh Valley and the four of them would go to the Steel Club, where Bill was a member.
Mickey and Helen’s families were always close; often visiting each other’s homes for holidays and summer picnics, but this loss brought them even closer.
Even before Bill’s passing, Mickey would often have Helen’s children visit and stay for a weekend or even a week by themselves. This gave Helen a little time to regroup, and the kids a change of scenery. With 6 children, this was very helpful for both Helen and her kids.
When Helen’s two oldest girls, Carolann and Georgene, were in their early teens, they recall fondly visits with Mickey when they would attend dances at the local park. This was when Mickey’s oldest daughter Kathy was only 2, so it was a real treat for Mickey to watch the girls primp before the dance, and she could hardly wait to hear stories when they got home.
Helen’s two youngest, Mariann and Bill, both cherish their memories of their summer visits to Mickey’s. Being close in age to Mickey’s two youngest, Judy and Mike, they had a buddy for the week, which they loved.
The week would start off with a visit to Hershey Park, followed by a week of swimming at the local pool and attending evening events at the community park. And you can’t forget those amazing half dollar pancakes for breakfast!
Mickey treated Helen’s children like her own, and she was like a second Mom for them. And this didn’t change as the children got older and had children themselves. When Mickey would visit, she always came with a “sister gift” and a little treat for Helen’s grandkids too.
As a matter of fact, Mickey was like this with all her nieces and nephews. Whenever they visited, no matter what age, she made them feel right at home and welcomed them with a huge hug and a special treat.
Mickey was a “small town girl” who liked to keep things simple, and wasn’t big on change. Which is why she could even be stubborn (a PA German thing) about some things. Like not wanting to fly, or driving the new-fangled automatic cars. Believe it or not she preferred driving a three speed on the column with manual steering and brakes.
Some may consider this a negative trait, but not for Mickey, it was actually part of her charm. There was no false pretense with her. Mickey’s heart was pure and everything she said and did was a reflection of this.
She believed strongly that everyone should be treated equally and the only thing that would get her dander up was seeing someone being bullied or treated unfairly. This all goes back to how she and her family were treated at times because they were poor.
Mickey often recalled how people would pass them by on their way to church and never even considered to offer them a ride. This type of thing stuck with Mickey and she vowed to not be like that.
AND, she most certainly stuck by that creed. Mickey was one of the kindest women on the face of the earth.
When a neighbor had surgery, she cooked and cleaned for them until they were back on their feet. At Christmas, she would always invite the milk delivery man in for cookies and coffee and he loved her cookies so much he asked her to bake a cake for he and his wife’s wedding anniversary. Of course Mickey obliged, asking nothing in return.
One of the most touching stories though is when Mickey’s sister Helen’s husband died in October of 1964. Mickey just couldn’t bear to see Helen have to face the holidays alone and went out of her way to prepare the most amazing Thanksgiving meal for Helen and her children.
For many years after that, Mickey continued to host Helen and her children for Thanksgiving. A tradition both families embraced whole-heartedly.
To say Mickey was a happy homemaker, OR, better yet, a “Domestic Goddess” is an understatement. She actually enjoyed doing housework, even ironing, and took great pride in the cleanliness of her home.
Mickey was up early every day, tending to her housework, and seeing that everyone had a hot breakfast, no matter what time they got up. Getting a healthy start to the day was a priority to her.
Some how, some way, Mickey got it all done, and she still took a break to watch her Soap Opera during the week. This was her one guilty pleasure, and she most certainly earned it.
OR, if a neighbor stopped by, she always had a pot of coffee on and would pause to chat and get caught up.
There is one story of a time when Mickey got walking pneumonia, and was so exhausted she actually had to spend time just laying around. Her Mother Sallie, who was living with her, actually asked her why she was laying around so much.
It’s pretty evident that was not the norm and where Mickey got her intense work ethic came from. The apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree.
How she accomplished what she did when there were times she had an endless stream of children under foot, her own, friends of her children, or nieces or nephews, is a miracle.
BUT she did and with a bright big dazzling smile too.
Mickey always seemed to just roll with things, and never seemed to be flustered by things, but that’s not to say she didn’t worry about her loved ones. As a matter of fact, Jimmy, her oldest son, said her middle name was more like “Anxiety,” not Alice. Especially when he joined the Air Force and became a fighter pilot.
Worrying though is just part of being a Mom, as well as being a protector, which was a hat Mickey wore regularly with her children. Protecting them from the wrath of Forrest if they misbehaved.
Not to say Forrest was mean, he was tough, and didn’t believe anyone should get a free ride. If the kids had problems with homework he would review their work, and point out where the problem is, but they had to fix it. He wasn’t going to just step in and fix it.
And forget asking him how to spell a word or what it meant, he’d point you in the direction of the dictionary and leave it at that. This coming from a man who did cross word puzzles in pen.
Being parents was one of Mickey and Forrest’s greatest joys, only matched by becoming grandparents. Being grandparents opened the door for a whole new level of loving, and they cherished every minute they had with their grandchildren.
Their oldest son Jim had married his sweetheart Jo Ann in September of 1978, and their first child Jamie was born in September of 1982, with their second, Jenna, following in November of 1986.
Being the only grandchildren until 1997 when Mike’s son Kellan was born and his daughter Alex in 2000, gave Jamie and Jenna quite a few years to have Grandma Mickey all to themselves. One of the best parts of this time was when Mickey would come to Virginia to babysit the girls while Jim and JoAnn went on their “every five year” anniversary jaunts.
AND, just like when her children were young, would end up with a houseful of Jamie’s friends. The best part was when the friends would show up after school before Jamie even got home, and would make themselves right at home. Not sure what Mickey was thinking when a stream of teenage girls came knocking, would say “hi” and stroll right in.
Although Mickey didn’t get to spend as much time with Mike’s children Kellan and Alex because Mike and his wife Valerie had settled in the Pacific Northwest, that just made their time together even more extra-special.
Mickey was also blessed with one great-grandchild. Her granddaughter Jenna and her husband Brian had a little girl named Merritt in December of 2017. For Mickey, who was 89 by the time Merritt was born, being able to hold her precious little great-granddaughter brought her a level of joy equal to that of holding her own children as infants.
And although Mickey passed before Merritt turned 3, Jenna has made sure to carry on her memory by telling Merritt stories, and most of all showing her videos. As a matter of fact, when they watch Jenna and Brian’s wedding video, Merritt always comments “That’s Grandma Bortz” when she sees Mickey.
So even though Merritt will only have others memories of Mickey, with time they will become hers too, and she like every one who knew Mickey will feel immense love when one of those memories dances through her mind.
Jim and his family lived in Germany for many years while both he and his wife were in the Air Force, but once home and settled in Virginia and later North Carolina, they would host the entire family for Christmas, which quickly became the highlight of the year for the family.
For Mickey and Forrest, who came from extremely humble backgrounds, and grew up with very little, it was overwhelming to see the level of generosity bestowed upon them by their children. Not to say they weren’t beyond grateful for every gift they received, it was just more than they had ever experienced.
There’s even a story of how Mickey burst into tears upon opening a gift of a chef-caliber stainless steel colander noting “it was the nicest colander she ever had.”
Mickey and Forrest had a very unique dynamic in their relationship. Forrest was very outgoing, had a quick wit, and never stepped away from the limelight. While Mickey would just quietly stand by his side, smiling and often shaking her head and rolling her eyes.
Forrest often came off as being flirtatious, but Mickey knew he was harmless and only had eyes for her, and it showed in their boundless love for each other. As a matter of fact, his flirty personality was just part of his charm.
As were some his comments like “Baldness does not detract from my physical charm, it merely exhibits the classic sculptor of my brow.”
Mickey and Forrest were married for 48 years before his passing in November of 1999, and every one of those years was wonderful regardless of any hardship because they had each other.
In early 1999, Mickey and Forrest had sold their family home and moved to a retirement community in Lebanon. It was a difficult decision, but once they settled in they were extremely happy they did.
The townhouse had everything they needed, but the best part was a screened in porch that overlooked a baseball field. They could relax with a beer and watch the local teams play, and on the 4th of July had a front row seat for the fireworks.
Unfortunately Forrest became ill and passed in November, less than a year in their new home.
After Forrest passed, Mickey was by herself for the first time in her life. Concerned about how she would handle this, Jim, Kathy and Judy activated a plan to rotate weekend visits so they could be there for her.
Sometimes just to visit, other times to run errands with her. OR just go out to eat or take a drive. Mike being on the West coast couldn’t physically be there, but he would always call to check in on her.
Much to their surprise Mickey adapted to her new independence quite well.
She had her regular housework schedule to keep her busy, AND as a long-time Penn State football fan (all her children were Penn State grads) during football season she had her weekly games to watch.
Along with those games came a ritual Mickey had developed over the years. Prior to each game she would carefully place her Joe Paterno bobblehead, a Beaver Stadium ashtray and Nittany Lion that played the fight song on the coffee table where they would stay through the entirety of the game.
But, what was better than the ritual was Mickey’s response to the game. If a Penn State player was tackled her comment would be “Look how ugly they are to those poor Penn State boys.” YET, when it was Penn State who was on the defense, she would yell, “Rip his head off.”
AND, if Penn State lost, it was because the other team cheated or there were dirty referees.
Mickey lived by herself till she was in her early 80’s, deciding at that point it would be best to move in with one of her children.
All the children were happy that Mickey had decided it was time to transition into living with family. They were all open to having her join them, but many of Mickey’s doctors were near Kathy, so she felt it would be best to move in with Kathy and her husband Mark.
Kathy and Mark were excited to have Mickey join them, but wanted to make sure everything was just right for her, and decided to make some renovations to their home so they could create a space for Mickey that felt like it was hers.
Mickey’s actual move though would be postponed due to emergency surgery for a bowel blockage and the subsequent recovery time needed to heal.
By the time Mickey was 84 she had her house on the market and by the following year, at the age of 85 she was finally able to move in with Kathy and Mark.
There were some adjustments once Mickey became part of the household, but with time Mickey and Kathy became the best of buddies, much like Mickey and her mother Sallie.
Over the years though, Mickey began to show signs of Alzheimer’s. Kathy did everything she could to keep Mickey safe and well cared for, but it became more and more evident that moving her into an assisted living home was the best thing to do.
This decision was devastating for the children, but they wanted to keep Mickey safe and had no other options. In February of 2019, one month shy of her 91st birthday, Mickey moved into Saucon Manor. The home was extremely close to Kathy, which enabled her to visit Mickey almost every day.
Although this was another huge adjustment for everyone, the family settled into acceptance and a new routine.
BUT, when the COVID Pandemic hit in March of 2020 their new routines were shut off. No one could visit Mickey at the home, which was even more painful than having her in the home.
The family’s pain was amplified in July of 2020, when Mickey’s body could no longer fight off the complications brought on by Alzheimer’s and some underlying heart conditions and she passed peacefully in her sleep
Not being able to be with their Mother when she passed was the most painful thing any of the children and grandchildren had ever endured.
Mickey was the poster child for unconditional love, and it showed in everything she said, and did. AND, was reflected in the sparkle of her eyes and the kindest, sweetest smile beaming from ear to ear regardless of the circumstances.
Even the ravages of Alzheimer’s couldn’t remove the glimmer of love, and kindness that was in Mickey’s heart. Her memories may have been fading, but that love was stronger than any disease because it was the purest of any love.
“Intense love does not measure, it just gives.” – Mother Teresa
This completes the individual posts dedicated to each amazing Dechert Sister, but there will be one more post next month recapping what a special group of women these Dechert Sisters were. So check back for that wrap up post.
Logically it would make sense to honor each sister in the order of their birth, but because Helen, my Mother, would have turned 100 this month I decided to start with her, even though she is the middle sister.
Helen and her Sisters, Kassie, Mable, Betty and Mickey were as thick as thieves as the expression goes. Even with a huge age gap between them.
Kassie, the oldest, born in 1911, and Mabel, the second oldest, in 1912, were 9 and 8 when Helen was born in 1920.
Then there was a gap of 6 years until Betty was born in 1926, and Mickey 2 years later in 1928. So Kassie and Mabel were teenagers by the time the youngest two sisters were born.
The older siblings always helped with the younger siblings, but there was no resentment. The love they had for each other was too strong. And this love grew even stronger as the sisters aged and ventured out on their own journeys. Their bond was stronger than any I have ever seen.
As individuals they were unique in their own right, paving their own paths, but united by the belief of kindness and compassion for all, something that came naturally for all of them. And something they saw first hand in their home growing up.
The story surrounding Helen’s birth is one that has become cemented in family history, and can even be considered legendary.
As the story goes, when Sallie, Helen’s Mother went into labor, her father David noted “But Sallie there are no fresh baked goods in the house.”
SO, before giving birth Sallie made sure to baked 12 small shoofly pies so David’s sweet tooth would be satisfied while she tended to the new infant in the house.
This in itself isn’t what makes the story legendary, the fact that Helen became an amazing baker in her own right proved it was in her genes from birth, and as my sister noted she was “Born to Bake.”
Of course her first teacher was her Mother Sallie, teaching her all the traditional foods unique to their PA German heritage, like shoofly pie, fastnachts, whoopie pies, apple dumplings, Moravian sugar cake, strudel, and sugar cookies (both the thin cut ones and the thick ones with icing.)
Over the years though, Helen would expand her baking skills beyond that, learning traditional foods of her husbands’ Slovak heritage like kiffle and nutroll, and experimenting with her own ideas, often entering baking contests. Unfortunately she never won though, why I’ll never figure out.
Helen was also a fantastic cook, mastering cuisine from both cultures, especially with traditional foods of the Easter and Christmas holidays, like cirak (homemade cheese) at Easter; and bobalky (poppyseed dumplings), noodles with cottage cheese and lekvaur and sour mushroom soup (machanka) at Christmas.
Plus, there were dishes not related to holidays like halupki (filled cabbage) and huluski ka pusta (cabbage and noodles), plus homemade pizza. Helen mastered the perfect thin crust and no chain restaurant or manufacturer will ever match it. Plus her homemade bread was better than any bakery.
Some of the holiday dishes are still continued in our family, which is all due to Helen’s intense desire to keep traditions alive.
Family heritage and traditions meant a lot to Helen, and she instilled the rich history of both cultures into her children, who in turn continue to share these traditions with their children.
Helen’s PA German heritage wasn’t just about food though, it was also about faith. She was raised Dunkard Brethren, which is similar to the Mennonite and Amish, and classified as Anabaptist. They don’t believe in baptism at birth, but when the individual is old enough to understand the teachings of the Bible and accept them. If a child was baptized at birth, they would be baptized again. Their baptisms took place in a body of water, not in the church.
Which is just how Helen was baptized, in a creek near their church by Reverend Harry France. As Helen told the story, after the baptism she asked the Reverend if he was Jesus. His response “No, but I work for his office.”
Clever comeback for a man of the cloth, don’t you think?
Helen took her faith very seriously, and it is what carried her through every challenge she faced through out her life. One of her most popular words of advice was “Put it in God’s hands.”
At her core was an unbreakable belief that the Lord will always see you through, and that with every challenge is a lesson to learn or stage of development to reach. You might not see it right away, but with time it will come to you. You just need to pause, ponder, and pray, “putting it in God’s hands.”
Then, put it aside, and patiently wait. As they say patience is a virtue and this is something Helen mastered at an early age.
From all accounts, Helen had a pretty normal childhood. She was somewhat quiet, and spent a lot of time with her grandfather Jonathan at his bike repair shop. He was her buddy.
She often spoke of a sledding accident, which caused her to loose a few teeth, and left a scare on her cheek. It occurred on a Saturday and when she wanted to stay home from church on Sunday her Mother Sallie stated, “If you had time for sledding, you have time for the Lord.”
Sallie was tough; there was no getting around her. Her word was the be all and end all.
Helen also noted she was called “Little Fat Hellie” because she was chubby as a kid, and had a sweet tooth. Who wouldn’t with a Mom who was a baker?
As Helen hit her teens though that nickname was far behind her. She got involved in sports and cheerleading. Playing basketball and teaching herself how to play tennis with a racket she bought for .25¢. She was also an avid ice skater.
She was a determined young woman, and didn’t let her humble home life stop her from exploring the world around her.
While in high school, Helen was also involved with a singing trio who sang radio commercials and even opened for the famous big band leader Kay Kyser. How she was able to do this with the strict rules of the church and her Mother, we’re still not sure. Must have been a covert operation on her part, although her cousin Vivian was part of the group too, so maybe that helped.
With a large extended family, Helen was very close to her cousins. The two that became her close buddies though were Harry and Charles Forry, sons of her Aunt Lizzie, who had 10 children. Both went to the Hershey Industrial School because their Father passed when they were young and it was too much for Lizzie to care for all of them. This of course broke her heart.
Later Harry and Charles became soldiers and fought in WWII. Harry was a second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps and was reported missing in Australia and ultimately declared dead on July 14, 1942, while Charles was captured by the Japanese and was a prisoner of war. Based on the story Helen told us, Charles escaped and even brought home kimonos he took en route to safety. Because of their bond, he gave two to Helen. My sister Pam has one, but where the other one is still a mystery.
Helen was a natural caregiver and it was this observation on her father David’s part that would land her at St. Luke’s Nursing School in Bethlehem after graduating from high school in 1938.
Helen would be the first Dechert Sister to leave her hometown of Myerstown to venture out beyond the comforts of her home to learn a trade.
And it was this decision that set in motion the true path Helen was born to take, that of a nurse. A profession that truly encompassed the person Helen was at her core; kind, compassionate, caring, helpful, loving, and trustworthy. If you were in need, Helen was there. She always put others first, no matter what her own personal circumstances were.
Helen started her career at St. Luke’s Hospital after graduation in 1941, working the ER, and becoming the Assistant Night Supervisor. While working one night, a handsome young man with coal black hair named Bill, brought an injured co-worker from the Bethlehem Steel in for care.
As the story goes, Bill took an instant liking to Helen commenting how beautiful she was, but added she needed to do something about taking care of her hands, which looked awful. He did however make sure to make note of her name and boldly called to apologize and ask her out on a date.
And, the decision to say, “Yes” to that date would change the course of Helen’s life. Having been offered a scholarship for Columbia University, Helen was seriously considering this opportunity to pursue a career as an obstetrician.
Not wanting to lose Helen, much to Helen’s surprise, Bill proposed. Upon popping the lid on the ring box, he said, “Well you love me, don’t you?”
And the truth was, Helen did love Bill, so she followed her heart and married Bill, never once looking back.
William (Bill) Henry Danko, and Helen were married on January 23, 1943 at the Rectory of St. Theresa’s Church followed by a reception at the Bethlehem Steel Sunshine Club in Hellertown, PA.
Early on in their marriage, Helen and Bill lived in an apartment in a building owned by Bill’s Mother Agnes. This situation as can be expected came with some challenges not just because Helen’s Mother-in-Law was the landlady, but because Agnes was not happy that her Son married a girl who was not Slovak or Catholic.
Helen did not let this get between her and Bill. Being the kind of person she was, she accepted Agnes for who she was, and understood it was part of her culture. Not that it didn’t hurt at times, especially when it came to the dislike of her PA German heritage.
Helen had already endured enough teasing and harassment about her PA German accent while in nursing school, she had hoped that discrimination would be behind her. Unfortunately it was not.
Helen knew she couldn’t change her heritage, but her religious affiliation she could.
At some point in their marriage though, Helen converted to Catholicism. This could have upset her Mother, but her response was “Well they’re good people too. They believe in Jesus Christ.”
Helen took her religious training seriously and became an active member of St. Theresa parish. Joining the guild, singing in the choir and making sure to contribute fresh baked goods for the guild bake sales. Once it got around what a phenomenal baker Helen was, parishioners would wait for her contribution so they could be the first to purchase them.
It wasn’t long after their marriage that Helen and Bill started a family. By December of 1943 their first child Carolann was born, with Georgene following 18 months later in 1945. Then Pamela in 1951 and Francine in 1956.
Much like Helen’s own family, there were age gaps between the children, but that didn’t impact the camaraderie between them.
Once children entered the picture, Helen left her job at St. Luke’s to become a full time Mom and housekeeper. Something she adored. Being a Mom took precedence over everything else.
Stopping housework to make oatmeal box houses for the girl’s dolls, or to have a picnic inside on a rainy day throwing a blanket on the living room floor and making peanut butter sandwiches with sprinkle sugar cut out with cookie cutters, or walking Carolann and Georgene to the Steel Club (miles away) for swimming lessons in the middle of doing laundry.
Agnes was not happy with Helen’s actions, she thought they were frivolous, but Helen and Bill knew the needs of the children where more important than any housework. The children would remember time spent with them, not how clean the house was.
Fortunately for Helen, she had also bonded with their neighbor Anna Killian and her husband Charlie. They would become a buffer for Helen when Agnes’ criticisms were too much to bear. They were also like surrogate Grandparents for the children.
Helen would also feed the hobos who would hang out at the picnic table in the back yard. As she told the girls, Christ is in everyone. As a matter of fact, Georgene even asked one of them if they were Jesus. Their response was “Hardly.”
Granted in these days, this would be quite dangerous, but back in the 40’s and 50’s it was a different world.
Although Helen and Bill’s apartment was not big, they made it work for their family. There was a decent size backyard where Bill built a sandbox for the girls, a large vegetable garden, and dog pen for Bill’s hunting dogs.
That sandbox was just a simple homemade one, with old coffee cans and muffins tins to play with, but the neighbor kids always ended up there, despite the fact that they had fantastic ones with fancy toys.
As my sister Pam has said, “Mom knew how to make the ordinary into something special.”
There was also a large basement that opened up into the backyard, which extended the girls play territory. Using the basement to perform plays, create an ice cream parlor, and of course celebrate birthdays.
The basement was also where Bill had his workbench where he created original furniture designs, and even had a dark room. Photography was one of Bill’s passions and he even had a little side business doing portraits.
Both Helen and Bill were very creative and playful and it showed in their style of parenting and how they approached the holidays, especially Christmas. It was most certainly a magical time.
Bill would create the most amazing Putz with real moss. It was so large it took over the living room in their small apartment. Staying up till the wee hours of the morning preparing stockings and gifts. One key feature was the Surprise Balls filled with little toys rolled up in paper that unraveled.
AND of course all the amazing baked goods created by Helen. Baked goods Helen had to be a “culinary sleuth” (as my sister Pam stated) to figure out because Agnes did not willingly reveal the recipes for the traditional Slovak dishes of the Christmas holiday.
There is also a story of one Christmas Eve when a woman and her baby showed up at the side door. She appeared to be in some sort of danger and it was believed she had gotten out of the car with her husband and somehow found the side door to the apartment. Bill took her somewhere, but where no one knows for sure.
The mysteriousness of the story, just added to the magic of the season, and further shows both Helen and Bill’s kindness toward their fellow man, which is why this story is still told today.
In 1958, Helen and Bill would find their emancipation from living in Agnes’ home when they built their own home in Bright Acres/Bingen, which was just outside of Hellertown.
This was an exciting time for the whole family, a place to finally call their own. Bill would plant a huge vegetable garden surrounded by raspberry and currant bushes, which Helen would use to create wonderful jelly and can and freeze their harvest.
As an avid hunter, fisherman and outdoorsman, Bill was in his element in this more rural setting and would decide to raise German Short Haired Pointers to be sold for hunting. He would also make his own lures for fishing and do custom designed carved gunstocks.
Helen would also learn how to prepare wild game and fresh fish. There is story that she even helped to gut a deer while she was pregnant.
Helen and Bill were green and sustainable before they were the trend. Starting a compost pile, and harvesting fresh organic produce and cooking from scratch, every day.
They would recycle everything they could, which back then took effort. Cans went one place and bottles went back to the beverage distributor.
Plastic baggies and aluminum foil were never used just once either. If they still had some life in them Helen would wash them out and dry them on the dish drainer. As Helen would say “This could come right handy in.” I have to confess I do this too. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
The neighborhood was the perfect place to raise a family too, all young families with children of similar ages. The women would gather for coffee klatches, often at Bill and Helen’s where they could enjoy Helen’s fresh baked goods.
AND, an Annual Halloween Parade was organized with reception and prizes to follow. The location was rotated through different households every year. A visit from Santa was also initiated with the Fathers taking turns to play Santa.
All this was done with donations from the neighborhood, each household rotating the chairperson duties each year.
When word got out that Helen was a nurse, she quickly became the nurse of the neighborhood. Never once hesitating when someone was in need.
In 1961 Helen and Bill would expand their family, with Mariann being born in March of that year, and then William, born in December of 1962.
Bill loved all his children, but was overjoyed to finally have a boy he could take hunting and fishing. He had always wanted a large family and hoped to one day have a boy.
In 1964 though, this happy household would be dealt the cruelest of fates. After a long battle with the Asian Flu, Bill would be diagnosed with colon cancer. On October 1st he would pass, leaving Helen a young widow with 4 children still at home.
Carolann had recently graduated from St. Luke’s Nursing School, and Georgene was a student at Kutztown University. Both moved home to help with the younger children; Pamela, 13, Francine 8, Mariann 3, and William (Billy) 18 months old.
Helen had to fall back on her faith and every deep reserve of strength she had to overcome her grief and focus on caring for the children.
Bill had no pension to draw on, but there was a small life insurance policy, plus, Bill had very wisely purchased Mortgage Insurance that insured the mortgage would be paid off when he died, thus providing a place for the family to live. This enabled Helen to stay home with the children for about a year and figure out where to go next.
First thing she had to tackle was learning to drive. One neighbor, Buddy Gress, was willing to help, but after neighbors started to talk, he had to step back. Helen would not only learn to drive, but also learn basic car maintenance because she learned early on no man in the neighborhood would help because their wives would not allow it.
It was sad that the neighbors she would drop everything for would turn away during her most desperate times.
Fortunately she had her sisters who were always there for her, Anna and Charlie, her friends from the old apartment and a fellow widow, Helen Barndt, who lived in neighborhood. These two would become close allies in their quest to overcome the heartache of grief and discrimination.
Throughout all of this though, Helen didn’t turn her back on her neighbors. It was not in her nature. She continued to be the kind, caring and compassionate woman she was before her loss.
Her children were her priority and she knew that neighborhood was where they needed to stay. After all it was the home she and Bill bought specifically to raise their family. And that was what she was going to do, no matter how many challenges she would face.
In July of 1966, Helen would embark on a new adventure that would ultimately help her heal and move forward. She took on the task of starting the first Health Service for students at Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales in Center Valley, which would later become DeSales University.
Over time she and her partner Jean Mauer developed a Health Service Department that lured other directors of health services from local colleges to come and tour their facility.
In the beginning she had to bring the two youngest children, Mariann and William (Billy) with her to work every day. As she told the school when she was interviewed, my family comes first.
The college community, staff and students, would become a second family for Helen. And she quickly became a second family for the students. Often bringing the extremely homesick students home for a home cooked meal. She knew the students needed more than medical care, they needed a listening ear, and someone who could “hear what they weren’t saying” as she put it.
In 1990, DeSales honored Helen with the DeSales Award, the highest non-academic honor awarded by the college to recipients who had given outstanding contributions to the development of the college through personal service. This was the first time it was ever given to an employee; it was usually presidents or monsignors.
As it was noted at the service “ Helen Danko is a living symbol of the humanity of this college. She is distinguished for the witness she gives in her life work to the ideals most highly prized by St. Francis de Sales, the college’s patron saint.
Later, in 2013, DeSales would create the Helen Danko and Jean Mauer Wellness Award, to be awarded to a student who exemplified the qualities both Helen and Jean embodied.
When Helen passed in 2015, the outpouring of love from former DeSales students was overwhelming and a reflection of Helen’s true character.
Helen would be part of the DeSales community until she fully retired in her late 70’s, after slowly cutting back her hours from 5 days to 1 day. Her reason for retirement was to turn her energy to helping care for her grandson Billy, one her son Bill’s children, who was born in 1997.
Her Grandchildren were her pride and joy. And she helped all she could with every one of them. Dustin, Georgene’s son was born in 1971, then came Ethan and Dylan, in 1989 and 1991, both Bill’s sons and later Roy, in 1999, Mariann’s Son.
She was also blessed with one Great Grandchild, Ian, Dustin’s son, who was born in 2004.
Helen also had two Step-Grandchildren, Crystal and Dale; and two Step Great Grandchildren, Damian and Aiden.
Even in her later years Helen still had a childlike and playful outlook on life, despite all she had endured over the years. It was this childlike quality that made her the Best Grandmother any child could ask for.
From playing super hero; to lion, crawling on all fours; to coloring and painting; to playing with Legos and board games; and most of all baking cookies. Helen did whatever the Grandchildren wanted to do.
One of the best stories though is the time she and Billy got locked in the laundry room until Judi, Helen’s daughter-in-law got home from work. They were playing hide and seek, and when Billy found Helen in the laundry room he pulled the door closed behind him, thus locking the door from the outside. Helen made the best of it, singing songs, playing games and telling Billy they would play make believe hide and seek with Judi, so when she came home she could find them.
Needless to say, Judi was quite surprised when she came home and found them in the laundry room. She thought they were there to greet her, little did she know they had been locked in there for hours.
As my sister Pam has said, “Mom knew how to make the ordinary into something special.”
Her family was her priority, and being able to spend time with them was what brought her pure joy. Whether it be with her immediate family, a visit with her sisters and their families, or large gatherings with the extended family, Helen would be beaming, swelling with love and gratitude for the greatest gift bestowed on her, family.
AND, if there was music playing at any gathering, Helen would be sure to be up on her feet dancing. Even in into her 90’s she would kick up her heels if the mood hit her. Especially if you put on some Big Band music, she just couldn’t resist. Something I know for a fact all of her children inherited.
The last 15 years of Helen’s life, she lived with her Son Bill and his family, but would spend weekends with her daughter Mariann and her Son Roy. In the beginning it was because Mariann was working weekends and needed someone to watch Roy, but when the weekend work stopped, Helen still came. Weekends with Grammy were something both Roy and Mariann looked forward to. Roy would anxiously wait at the window every Friday, looking for Grammy to arrive, greeting her with a huge hug and kiss.
Some weekends Carolann would join them and they quickly became the “Four Musketeers” doing everything together. With Roy as the ringleader, and Helen going along with whatever he so desired.
Being part of these two households was extremely fulfilling for Helen. She would help not just with the children, but also in the kitchen and with the laundry. I dubbed her the “Laundry Fairy” because some how she magically got everything folded and put away before I even knew it.
Helen was a pure joy to have around. She always had a kind word to say. As her daughter-in-law Judi noted, every morning before Judi left for work, Helen would tell how beautiful she looked in the color she was wearing. Didn’t matter what color it was, she always looked beautiful. It was these kind words that were the sunshine Judi needed to make it through the day. As she told her co-workers, “I have the best Mother-in-Law.”
One of Helen’s catch phrases when something pleasant and unexpected happened was “Well that wasn’t in my Star Gazer today.” Something tells me if she could read this post, that’s exactly what she would say.
Helen was a woman of great integrity, coming from humble roots, overcoming discrimination, and major loss. Never once feeling sorry for herself and always putting others first, her compassion for her fellow man can only be rivaled by one other person, Mother Theresa.
And it is this quote from Mother Theresa that I feel encompasses all that Helen stood for and what guided her every day of her life.
“Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness; kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile.”
Many thanks to my family for their contributions of stories and memories which enabled me to pull together Helen (Mom’s) story.
Please check back next month when I will feature Kathryn Dechert Krill, the oldest of the Dechert Girls.
Ok, I know it’s a bit cliché to write a post about motherhood the week after Mother’s Day, but comments about “Real Mothers” in a book I’m reading not only made me giggle, but triggered my mind to meander through my years as a Single Mom raising a gifted child.
The book is “House Rules” by Jodi Picoult, and it’s been on my nightstand for years. I started reading it multiple times, but life as a Single Mom, or any Mom for that matter, doesn’t always allow the time to just sit and read.
BUT, having more time at home right now, and a child who is twenty and somewhat independent, I can say I finally carved out time to read, beyond the newspaper, blogs and reference books. A hobby I certainly missed.
The book is a story about a divorced, single Mom named Emma with an 18 year old son with Asperger’s syndrome, who is very verbal, and locked in his own world, but would very much like to make connections outside of this world, yet is clueless on how to be “normal.”
AND, there is also an older brother who just wants a normal life, but gave up hope of this ever happening, as the issues with his younger brother became the dominant factor in their household. Thus the title “House Rules.”
I won’t get into details beyond this because it’s insignificant to the point of this post. What is significant is that as can be expected this Mother has had a hard time at being the Mother she dreamed she would be. She’s spent a lot of time second-guessing herself, but with time has realized she has done what needed to be done to protect her children, especially the son with Asperger’s.